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‘Click bait’ hijacks the real story about technology in Australian schools November 17, 2015

Posted by sethuws in Directions in Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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from Jane Hunter

A recent education report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said, among many other things, young people first “need to be equipped with basic literacy and numeracy skills so they can participate fully in the hyper-connected, digitized society of the 21st Century”. It went on to make tenuous links between too much technology and falling literacy and numeracy, but first warned, quite early in the report, that “the findings must not lead to despair”.

That was all it took. What followed was a media frenzy, here and overseas, which produced a range of very negative stories. For example: “Are iPads a waste of money? OECD report says yes” stated The Age; in the Huffington Post in the United States: “Putting more technology in schools may not make kids smarter: OECD Report“; and in the United Kingdom the title of a BBC News story “Computers ‘do not improve pupils results says OECD“.

If you look closely at the report Students, Computers and Learning, which uses results from the 2012 PISA computer-based assessment of ICT literacy of students aged 15 in 31 countries across the globe, it is saying there is much good news. The leaps of logic in the interpretation and application of findings in the report picked up by various media outlets are considerable and unfortunate.

The examples I gave are just three of at least twelve damaging stories I read after the report’s release. They show how complex education issues in schools, and for principals, teachers, students and jurisdictions are increasingly reduced to the ‘education sound bite’. This kind of reportage serves as click bait for online readers.

Politicians may then take what reporters say as ‘gospel’. However, far more insidious, is the harmful effect such headlines have on teacher morale and the public’s view of education and schools more generally.

The real story about technology in Australian schools

In 2015 teachers’ work in technology-enhanced learning in classrooms in NSW is exciting. I have carried out research in a number of Australian primary and high schools since 2011 and my research shows there is good progress with technology enhanced learning and the pace is hastening. This research is ongoing.

Students are doing tech well in many Australian schools. They are stepping up to embrace the challenges that learning effectively with technologies demands. Results in student assessment in these schools show this. However connectivity in many schools is still far from ideal and even within major cities it is variable.

I agree with the OECD report where it states, “young people do want to be taught how to search more effectively”. My recent research indicates that. It also demonstrates that in some high schools in particular classrooms, students want teachers to leave behind the industrial model of “talking at them”, using “mindless work sheets” and “copying endless notes off the board”. Students desire many more opportunities to problem solve, work in teams, carry out long-term real-world projects, create films/animations, and use inquiry and project-based learning. The OECD report says this too.

I know from first hand experience that technology inequities exist in our schools and the “digital divide” is real. I also understand most schools make provisions for providing computers and other mobile devices to students who cannot afford them.

Something that has not been reported widely is that groundbreaking programs like the Digital Education Revolution (DER) meant for the first time every student from Year 9 onwards in an Australian public school had access to a small technological device. The program was not perfect but what it did do effectively (and there are evaluations that show this) is it placed technology in the hands of students who could not normally afford it. DER served to ‘whet the appetite’ of technological things to come, like educational apps, augmented reality, 3D printing, maker labs, geo spatial technologies, code and digital games. It enabled tech-savvy ‘early adopter teachers’ to play with technology, to see how it changed core concepts and how learning inside classrooms could be more engaging and motivating for young people, whose ‘digital bedrooms’ at home were a parallel universe to their lives at school.

Technology hardware and software is expensive. Governments must replace outdated equipment. Provide more time for professional development. This is vital investment that will allow teachers, as the OECD report contends, to become “active agents of change”.

I am about to start teaching a digital technologies course in a doctoral program for teachers in the School of Education at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia in the United States. This is relevant because yesterday the school received a $5.6M gift from an alumnus. The donor, who wanted to remain anonymous, hopes the philanthropic commitment will inspire others. “Without properly trained teachers, our country would not have an educated population. Teachers are critical if we want a strong and vibrant society,” said the donor.

We need the Australian public and politicians to understand, and actively support, what is going on in our schools and in teacher education in universities, but how can we do this when complex issues are reduced to the lowest common denominator in the media? We are doing all educators a disservice when stories about technology in schools are hijacked as ‘click bait’.


This post was recently published on the blog of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE), EduResearch Matters.

Postscript (Nov. 19th, 2015)

This week ACARA has released the 2014 NAP – ICT literacy report. It shows: “a decline in ICT literacy in Year 6 and 10”. Predictably it has been reported in the Australian media using headlines like “Texting isn’t enough: Australian students’ computer skills drop, new report shows” and in The Conversation on 18 November “ICT literacy is failing in schools. Here’s why”.

In this latest ACARA test more than 10,500 students were assessed in 2014 on their ICT knowledge, understanding and skills. The report shows that 55% of students in year 6 achieved the expected standards, and 52% of students in year 10 completed ‘challenging but reasonable’ tasks, for example, the creation of tables and charts, sorting data in a spreadsheet and editing graphics and text.

Dr Mike Phillips, lecturer in Digital Technologies at Monash University, author of The Conversation piece says: “this equates to a 6% and 13% decrease for years 6 and 10 respectively over the last three years”. Four reasons are cited for the decline: “late introduction of the digital technologies curriculum, teachers not equipped with the skills they need, too much choice in the range of available digital tools, and outdated examination of technology skills in ACARA’s ICT test/s”.

I agree in principle with the reasons mentioned to explain why this might be occurring – however I urge caution around concluding that technology enhanced learning and Australian students’ digital skills are in decline more generally.

In my research in many NSW public primary and high schools this year I do not see evidence (forthcoming series of research papers) of this marked decline. What I am seeing in many primary schools are huge shifts in teachers’ technology enhanced learning practices, and often it’s how teachers support very young students to develop their digital skills using a range of devices. In high schools, the picture is less rosy. But it’s improving. For example, in one study and this is supported by findings from two others, Year 10 students want more support to know how to search effectively for information, they require clear scaffolds to complete open-ended/project-based tasks and students also want to know how to take efficient notes using their mobile devices.

As stated previously, until connectivity improves, technology enhanced learning in schools remains hard. In many NSW public schools, even within the Sydney CBD access is poor. Reliable, fast internet must be a standard requirement for education in all Australian schools. It is coming … but not quickly enough.

The current NAP test in ICT is limited in what it tests in years 6 and 10 and this goes to the nature of national testing in this country more generally (as identified in recent publication by Lingard, Thompson and Sellar in National testing in schools: an Australian assessment, 2016).

ACARA’s new Digital Technologies curriculum and remember these latest NAP – ICT literacy results were a response to an ‘old curriculum’ that encouraged teachers to approach using technology isolated from its pedagogical and content potential in classroom learning. For instance, knowing how to do use an excel spreadsheet does not translate into students demonstrating higher order thinking skills in Science.

In a series of timely papers on Revisiting the Digital Education Revolution in Point and Counterpoint in Curriculum Perspectives, September 2015, 35(2): Kathryn Moyle (Guest Editor) reflects upon what progress has been made towards the aims of the DER; the series includes a paper by a school student who was a beneficiary of one of the DER computers, a teacher who worked in schools during the time of the DER, a state-based policy officer and another officer who worked at the national level of DER implementation. The papers are well worth a read. In summary they conclude that time and further research are needed to really understand the impact of DER, as long term commitment by government was not prioritized around policy on infrastructure and connectivity.

Having just spent the past three months in a number of US schools in three states examining technology-enhanced learning in classrooms I can but concur that these two factors are the most important baseline requirements. Ongoing professional learning, and giving teachers ‘time to play’ with new tools are also critical. As Wagner and Dintersmith (2015) conclude in Most Likely to Succeed – and this applies equally to the Australian education context, it is time to re-imagine our schools.


Dr Jane Hunter teaches pre-service teachers in curriculum, pedagogy and technology enhanced learning in the School of Education at Western Sydney University. She is a researcher in the Centre for Educational Research at the same institution. Jane is the author of Technology integration and High Possibility Classrooms: Building from TPACK, New York: Routledge published earlier this year. In March 2016 she is a keynote speaker at the Future Schools Conference in Sydney.

Young people, “radicalization” and schooling October 26, 2015

Posted by Editor21C in Community Engagement, Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics, Engaging Learning Environments, Secondary Education, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
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from Carol Reid

The recent events in Parramatta and subsequent ‘threats’ on social media located at two south-western Sydney high schools has brought to the fore the role of schooling in developing and countering threats to social cohesion. This is not the first time that the relationship between schools and terrorism and crime have been raised and it is not just in this part of Sydney, which is home to the most diverse number of first and second generation immigrants in Sydney. For those of us who have worked in and with schools around these matters for a number of decades there is little surprise. Before discussing what might be done it is critical that we comprehend what hasn’t been done, or rather what has been erased.

In the culture wars over school curricula Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire argued that critical approaches in high schools were ideologically driven and took the place of what really ‘ought’ to be in the curriculum. Donnelly was the ‘non-ideological’ choice of government for interrupting what was seen as left-wing tendencies among teachers and reforming ‘tainted’ curricula. This article does not want to waste space recounting the debates as arguments can be found elsewhere, but it is important to outline what this has meant for schools and young people.

The attack on critical thinking skills (including critiques of government policy and our history) by conservative educationalists leads to schools becoming places where ‘touchy subjects’ can’t be raised. They are taboo in schools. This means that they find space in subterranean places. This happens in schools in part because that is where young people gather. Schools are therefore important sites for airing and challenging views, no matter how extreme. It is not surprising that fellow students of the Arthur Phillip High School student involved in the Parramatta shooting had not heard him mention anything untoward, nor is it surprising that he also silenced discussions of religion or appeared disinterested. This concealed two things – his own complicity with unspeakable texts, but more importantly the related silencing of different views of the world by conservative forces surrounding schooling.

If we are not blind we can take this opportunity to reconsider what schooling is and how marginalising some forms of critique only serves to deepen disaffection but more critically drives some young people to commit acts of terror. The new Turnbull government is beginning to soften the tone but often points to factors such as mental health issues, isolated young people or poor family relations as factors that leads to anti-social behaviour at school or by young people of school age. But this begs the question given all the mental health opportunities provided for young people. Assistance for this kind of anomie is off the radar. It cannot be spoken.

In the rest of this short article I would like to outline what might be done and in doing so stand in solidarity with commentators such as Yassar Morsi who said:

It maybe counterintuitive but the answer lays in less authority – a space for young Muslims to politically dissent in their own language, rather than more policing of their dissent. Less parenting, more growth and a space to criticise the west and Australia, without an Islamophobic or generational backlash and without the hysterical fear and suffocation that surrounds everything they do and say.

Indeed, the first response to the Parramatta shooting by the NSW State Government is to monitor more closely ‘prayer’ groups in schools and while not clearly stated, this appears to be only Muslim prayer groups. Dr Anne Aly – who works with Muslim youth and adults who are already radicalized – similarly argues for dialogue. But what can schools do? In the remainder of this article I provide an approach that builds on young people’s capacities to know, and to trust them to articulate this knowing and emerge with new understandings that enrich them, their peers and their teachers.

In late 2006 I was invited by Larissa Treskin, then the NSW Department of Education Liverpool Education Director of Schools, to consider a project working with public high schools in Liverpool on racism post-Cronulla riots. Apparently there were still simmering issues bundled up with everyday competitiveness by school boys about girls and turf; the usual spatial dynamics that have been around for a long time. Six high schools were approached and I invited two of my colleagues (Drs Les Vozzo and Debra Costley) to work with me on the project, which was funded by a competitive ‘Living in Harmony’ grant for 2007, managed by the then Department of Immigration and Citizenship (now the Department of Immigration and Border Protection) with a contribution by my university, now Western Sydney University (WSU).

The project began with selecting the age groups to be involved. Year 9 and 10 students (14 to 16 year olds) formed two groups. The first (47 in total) spent a full day at WSU where we discussed the media representation of young people involved in two riots – Macquarie Fields and Cronulla. We were careful to approach the issue as one where the construction of young people was at the heart of the matter and thus to evoke a sense of ‘needing to understand’ different perspectives from and about their own peers. The objective was to explore and document through youth voices the causes of youth tensions in a context of rapid social change. We provided them with workshops on how to interview, carry out focus groups and ethical research practice. We argued that the main concern was to understand racism – whether it was indeed an issue, thoughts about the Cronulla riot and whether another might occur.

At the end of the day’s workshop we all co-constructed five questions (eight teachers included) that would be covered in their research. The students then left and with their teachers developed plans to interview a group of students and teachers at another school after a pilot focus group at their own school and an interview practice with a teacher or two volunteers. They also interviewed community members such as parents and local business owners. Staff workshops were also held.

A second group of students worked with a theatre group led by Kaz Therese on a creative representation of the issues, and also findings from the first group’s investigations. The youth theatre group decided to use a narrative approach so that the students involved could use theatrical forms to narrate stories of migration, indigeneity and everyday teenage concerns, along with a song they developed around the rejection of racism. The production was called ‘Pieces of Harmony’ because the students felt that while harmony was a fair enough aim it was a little naïve, but that in the act of aiming for harmony a rapprochement could be attained in pieces of harmony. The performance was held at the Liverpool Catholic Club and was attended by community, parents and dignitaries with a DVD produced.

What happened to those doing the research? The students were slightly apprehensive; pleased they had got the questions agreed on before leaving the workshop, but feeling intimidated about talking to parents due to cultural mores about respect and obedience among many second generation students. So, we had a mock focus group to prepare them. Students interviewed 301 other students in total across the six schools. Initially they were concerned about going to other schools but the evaluation of the project revealed that collaboration with other schools was the aspect they enjoyed most.

Furthermore, when they were asked about what they had learned, the greatest number of comments related to how doing the research had shifted their thinking about issues of cultural difference, race and harmony. A number had held negative constructions of students from other schools based purely on ethnicity or reputation rather than knowledge of their perspectives. Other interesting results here include the relatively poor perception of parental support for young people. Students were also surprised by some of the attitudes of teachers. The young people involved in the research requested another full day workshop to discuss their findings and asked why there were no more opportunities for this kind of learning. The young people who were involved in the research found some startling facts about others, themselves and their teachers.

Some key community attitudes about young people and the project that emerged from the focus groups led by students were:

  • They felt there was a lot of diversity in their communities;
  • Dominance of a certain culture made others feel inferior to that group;
  • Kept referring back to just ‘youth’ rather than racism – i.e. not their problem in other words;
  • Families had different values and morals;
  • Indigenous parents particularly enjoyed the performances where students told their stories.

From the students’ perspective:

  • The project produced an overall shift in attitude towards students from other schools and cultures developed through an exploration of local and global issues;
  • They concluded that older students had more fixed views influenced by the media;
  • Younger students were less decided. Still testing out the possible ideas available;
  • Concluded that Year 7 and 8 is a good place to start as they haven’t formed opinions or stereotyped people.

The students found that teachers:

  • Held the basic idea that more diversity produces racism and that this is an area that needs some substantial work done with teachers;
  • Lifestyles did not include much mixing with diversity;
  • Were worried about Bebo – site of racist narratives.

To conclude, the outcomes of the project were that people were now more conscious that racism takes many forms and that it is not just young people but community, parents and teachers who are implicated in multiple ways. While this project was related to racism, it is the model of youth engagement in understanding the issues from their perspective and in their words that is central. Working in multimodal forms also makes different forms of expressing these understandings and perspectives available. The project also developed critical thinking capacities and provided knowledge about ethical research practices.

More could be done to make schools safe places for student discussion of current issues. While it may seem counter-intuitive from a conservative perspective – that ‘touchy subjects’ ought to be repressed because they are dangerous – not dealing with valid concerns that young people have, whether radicalization or other matters, means that it is hard to make schools relevant in the totality of their lives. Educationalists must be explaining and debating. It is fertile space for further research and community engagement.


Dr Carol Reid is an associate professor in the Centre for Educational Research and School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia.

Listen with both ears. Deadly Aboriginal educators yarning up essentials for future success. October 19, 2015

Posted by sethuws in Education Policy and Politics, Social Justice and Equity through Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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from Shirley Gilbert

October 1st 2015 marked the close of a key meeting of the minds and the knowledge holders at the “Our Mob Teach” conference. Hosted and run by the More Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teachers Initiative (MATSITI), this day marks the end of a four year undertaking to change the way we think about Initial Teacher Education (ITE) and the preparation of teachers for the future who will work with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

This meeting of the minds saw representatives from a range of key government stakeholders, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers at all stages of their careers (current students, early and mid-career teachers, Deputy-Principals and Principals), as well as those of us working in the spaces of higher education and Initial Teacher Education (ITE) training. Part of the conference agenda for the two days was to make key recommendations back to government about how we create greater opportunities to produce more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teachers given MATSITI’s role in this space. This occurred under the leadership of BHP, as we in Aboriginal Education know them (Professor Peter Buckskin, Emeritus Professor Paul Hughes and the deadly Dr Kaye Price). BHP have led this space for more than three decades. Part of the operational focus of the two days was to hear about what our communities and people supporting us in the education space see as key yarns we need to turn into actions for the future.

Speaker Mr. David Templeman

Sharing the raw realities was part of the conference. During day one of the meeting Mr. David Templeman’s presentation from ACDE stated that their own research found that today that universities are often viewed as being culturally unsafe spaces for many of our mobs and that many Aboriginal students leave their studies at critical points in their programs.

Knowing this, how important is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student success for our mobs, when we know the key to our success is to have more Aboriginal teachers? When communities walk out of these institutions and do not return to their studies, this affects our capacity to grow as communities. How can institutions reduce these walking points? If we are moving to close the gap in ITE and increase the numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait lslander teachers, how and what do tertiary sectors need to change, operationally and relationally, about the way they engage with our communities?

As the key providers and administrators of educational training and ITE programs, how can we make universities the safe spaces that Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander future teachers want to interact with? Our communities want more, our young learners need more, our schools need Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander teachers as part of their staff, but all these spaces need to be safe. We know that generally these students rely of the ‘one’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Academic staff member to make their spaces safe – and often these academics are casually employed.

Pivotal to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students achieving success throughout their schooling is the effective preparation of preservice teachers (Buckskin 2015, Sarra 2014, Harrison 2011). Much of the conference heard the voices of future Aboriginal Teachers – many of them just about to embark into the profession – and what has resonated is how many of these young people spoke about cultural safety in their university experiences and the experiences that they have had during their practicums.

The need to develop deep understandings of how to meet the educational needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander learners is demanded by both policy makers and Aboriginal community (NSW AECG 2004, AITSL, ACARA, MATSITI and Ma Rhea 2012). The newly introduced accountability frameworks (AITSL, ACARA) provide some guidance for universities to prepare graduate teachers for the profession.

The Australian Council of Deans of Education (ACDE) will now feed back to the Deans about how they might ensure their institutions improve their own spaces. We need these spaces to harness the challenge to become culturally responsive institutions which are strengths based, not deficit focused. These challenges to universities are not new, and the review undertaken by Behrendt (2012) focused on the specific barriers preventing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from achieving their full potential in higher education.

Key to the review discussions was the point that attitudinal changes were required in institutions, as well as the development and implementation of cultural competency training for all sectors involved with Aboriginal education and the teaching of Aboriginal content.

In one of the forums I spoke about the necessity for quality teaching which included the preparation of initial teacher graduates which understood our community’s needs, saying:

Our local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities expect our local schools to be able to work with their children in effective and positive ways to achieve standards in education which are equal to all other students. They expect high quality culturally responsive teaching and learning which maintains cultural and community links that is seen as relevant and engaging.

At Western Sydney University the Masters of Teaching (Secondary) program will see the first group of forty preservice teachers to have experienced a unit (subject) titled Aboriginal and Culturally Responsive Pedagogies. I developed this unit in response to the new teacher graduate requirements – AITSL standards 1.4 and 2.4. The standards are designed to give graduates the capacity to “demonstrate broad knowledge and understanding of the impact of culture, cultural identity and linguistic background on the education of students from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds” (1.4), and “demonstrate broad knowledge of, understanding of and respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, cultures and languages” (2.4).

Much of the two days of discussions at the conference linked into the issues it raises for ITE providers. Many mainstream educational providers of ITE programs in Schools of education have very limited engagement with these requirement and many of the new career Aboriginal teachers had been challenged by the mis-information these units had tried to impart to them about Aboriginal histories and cultures.

Many more spoke about the challenges for them in their spaces not seeing an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander academic in their courses. As the Academic coordinator, lecturer, tutor and initially the developer of a new unit at my university, other universities might also take up these challenges which are impeding their own successes creating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander graduate teachers. I am hoping that our graduates at this university, after undertaking a well-structured and culturally focused unit in a preservice teacher program, will be better equipped and able to work effectively with Aboriginal parents and caregivers to provide the required respectful partnerships which are absent of past histories and prejudices.

However, what makes a successful effective and inclusive institution? Can universities invest in the space which values community expectations about what is required? Universities Australia and all key stakeholders nationally will be soon be presented with MATSITI recommendations. How stakeholders listen to (and not just read) the document and then action these recommendations in their own spaces will be critical. Can we, as ITE providers, develop these educational spaces which not only deliver educational and professional success but also meet the specific needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Teachers? Some of this success could result from strategic employment in the institutions to make them more culturally safe.

So what is important?

To succeed we need to raise awareness about:
• How institutions can and will produce a well-trained culturally responsive teachers workforce.
• Developing a critical mass of full time Aboriginal academics in Initial Teacher Education teacher programs.
• Developing and monitoring Aboriginal core units in institutions which challenge worldviews about teaching and that are relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders future teachers.
• Developing Aboriginal teacher pathways which provide opportunities so that current teachers can return to higher degree studies and academic pathways.
• Developing and understanding the resilience factors ITE graduates develop despite the ‘white fragility’ factors in institutional settings.

Recommendations and actions that move higher education outcomes which can reduce the levels of racism towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students can become effective teachers for their communities will be presented in a MATSITI report soon to all sectors.

Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) http://www.acara.edu.au/default.asp

Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) http://www.aitsl.edu.au/about-us

Behrendt, L. Larkin, S. Griew, R and Kelly, P.(2012) Review of Higher Education Access and Outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People Final Report https://docs.education.gov.au/system/files/doc/other/heaccessandoutcomesforaboriginalandtorresstraitislanderfinalreport.pdf

Ma Rhea, Z., Anderson, P.J., Atkinson, B., 2012, Improving Teaching in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Education: National Professional Standards for Teachers Standards Focus Areas 1.4 and 2.4, Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, Melbourne Victoria Australia, pp. 1-77.

NSW Department of Education and Training and NSW Aboriginal Education Consultative Group Inc, August (NSW DET & NSW AECG), 2004. The Report of the Review of Aboriginal Education Yanigurra Muya: Ganggurrinyma Yaarri Guurulaw Yirringin.gurray Freeing the Spirit: Dreaming an Equal Future.

Shirley Gilbert is a Gunditjmara academic working in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Kingswood campus in the Master of Teaching (Secondary). She is currently undertaking a Doctor of Education (EdD) focussed on Aboriginal Education issues and the profession of initial teacher training.

The need for flexible, personalised and responsive curriculum September 13, 2015

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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from Steve Wilson

Imagine you had promised your friend or partner that you would go with them to watch a movie each week for a full year.

Imagine then, having made this commitment, that your friend or partner did not consult with you about which movies to watch – they simply selected the movie each week, irrespective of your own preferences or tastes, and expected you to come along.

You might put up with it for awhile. You would likely develop resentment about the situation. Eventually, as an adult, you might confront your friend and explain your feelings and try to change things. If they didn’t change, in all likelihood, you would simply stop going to the movies with them.

For children and young people in schools, the school curriculum is like being forced to go to the movies, to see things they often don’t like or can’t see the point of, but where they do not have the adult prerogative, legally at least, of simply not going to school. Trapped in schools with an unresponsive curriculum, feelings amongst young people towards school can and frequently do include resentment, apathy and disengagement. Every teacher commonly experiences these feelings amongst their children, and not just amongst the children who are the lowest academic achievers.

We should not underestimate the power of an unexplained and unresponsive curriculum as a factor in child and youth disengagement from school. Nor should it be underestimated as an explanation for any perceived decline in international education standards among western nations where, in most facets of life, young people influence and exercise considerable choice in most other areas of their lives expect in school.

In writing this piece I am assuming curriculum as a broad entity, ranging from the documents comprising the Australian curriculum and the range of state-based adaptations to it, through to the formal and informal learning experiences of children in classrooms and schools, structured and developed under the auspices of each school.

Curriculum is the key. A cynic might say that curriculum is what education systems DO to learners in schools. A greater cycnic might say that what is done to learners is also being done to teachers. If our curriculum is not carefully thought through and structured, it can act as a straitjacket on teachers and learners, undermining their capacity to explore and engage through education. If the curriculum is over burdened in content areas, over prescribed with mandated teaching points, over tested, over regulated, then it robs learners and teachers of the potential to engage in education with imagination, personal investment, and joy. Learning becomes a chore, for learners and teachers alike. And, often, they disengage as a result. They simply stop trying.

In my many years as a teacher and teacher educator, I have always believed that teaching is among the most creative of professions. There is nothing more satisfying for a teacher than to develop learning experiences that enable children to understand concepts, develop skills and values, develop confidence, and enjoy their learning. The act of conceiving of and creating these learning experiences, ones that you know will bring out the best in your learners, then seeing your creative, intellectual efforts work in the classroom, and seeing children grow and want to keep learning as a result, is the key reward for the teacher.

To achieve this, curriculum needs to be freed up, becoming a crucible for fostering creative imagination rather than a straitjacket encouraging disengagement. We need a flexible curriculum, far less prescriptive than we generally have now, which encourages teachers to engage with and be responsive to the personalities of their students, and which enables young people to become involved with and take responsibility for their learning.

How to do this? We have plenty of evidence that current curricula are generally overcrowded and too prescriptive, so a good first step would be to identify a set of genuinely necessary core competencies, skills, values and content, which are limited and restrained, and which are essential for the social and economic wellbeing of individuals (and through them, the nation). The remainder and bulk of the curriculum should take the form of flexible guidelines which teachers can respond to with imagination and creativity, thereby inspiring their children to become involved and to strive to excel. This is a strength of the current curriculum in Finland, which has been considered the global ‘gold standard’ over the last decade.

We used to have in Australia, in the 1970s and 80s, strong and successful state-based cultures around school-based curriculum development – ones which enabled schools and their teachers to craft engaging and relevant curriculum developed from a clear but limited systemic curriculum framework.

These cultures (like the culture currently emphasised in Finland) had strong expectations of teachers as highly responsible, creative and professional individuals, based on high levels of trust of teachers. Unfortunately, later neo-liberal political ideologies and governance (from both sides of state and federal politics) gradually eroded these cultures. Examining and re-valuing the strengths of these previous curriculum cultures in Australia might be a good place to begin in conceiving how a less centralised, less crowded and more responsive curriculum would work for learners and their teachers.

Secondly, we have plenty of examples of thinking about curriculum, learner motivation and pedagogical approaches which respect the role of learners in learning, and teach us how to be inclusive of the tastes, preferences, talents and humanity that learners bring to their learning and their schools. People who have provided conceptual and practical clarity in their related writings include John Ainley, James Beane, Garth Boomer, John Dewey, Jacquelynne Eccles, Michael Fullan, William Glasser, Susan Groundwater-Smith, Roger Holdsworth, Stephen Kemmis, Tony Knight, Carl Rogers and R.E. Young amongst many others.

These contributions assist us in conceiving of more responsive, dynamic, shared and inclusive learning environments and communities, and of how to create effective and positive relationships between teachers and learners. They show us how these approaches can benefit and stimulate ALL learners – not just the most academically capable.

This, the ‘how’ of curriculum, is just as important as the content it contains. The ‘how’ of curriculum, the way we enable young people to engage in learning, must encourage young learners to make an intellectual and emotional investment in their learning by having input into how it is designed and conducted. That is the real beginning point to their engagement – enabling their committed buy-in to the process of formal learning.

Thirdly, in our teacher professional learning and development opportunities, in both the pre-service and in-service career stages, we need to continually emphasise the role of teachers as professional, imaginative and creative transactors and facilitators of learning. My own suspicion is that too many of our teachers may have come to regard teaching as having become de-professionalised – a profession in which they are simply expected to teach to the dot points the syllabus or school program contains, and to teach to the test.

Those teachers who do feel this way are being quite realistic – an over-crowded, over-mandated, over-tested (and often politically driven and destabilised) curriculum is de-professionalising. We need to give back to our teachers the opportunities and curriculum development skills to create curriculum and learning experiences that capture the hearts and imaginations of our children and young people.

Clearly, some of the above solutions to curriculum may require agitation by the profession and community, leading to macro, politically-endorsed reforms. In the absence of these, there are still very positive things that can be  created by schools and classroom teachers from an over-prescriptive curriculum. Many formal curriculum and syllabus documents are not, on a closer reading, necessarily as prescriptive and confining as they first appear. Many mandated themes, topics or teaching points can be interpreted and adapted by the teacher, who can choose what to emphasise within particular topics, how much time should be allotted, what teaching approaches, activities or approaches to assessment might be used, and what opportunities there are to provide students with learning choices. With imagination and creativity, flexibility, personalisation of learning and responsiveness can often be crafted from curriculum documents which may initially seem too prescriptive and unforgiving.

Teachers who do manage to find this flexibility have the opportunity to create spaces in the curriculum into which they can invite their young learners to discuss, craft and conduct learning activities and the content they focus on. These teachers often feel great personal and professional fulfilment when they do engage with their students around their personal learning preferences, and achieve great learning motivation and improved academic outcomes with their learners – even on tests like the NAPLAN (without them having to emphasise the practising of the test).

Let’s return to my opening movie analogy. Imagine instead a classroom in which children and young people are continually participating by suggesting things to learn, and ways to learn, activities to do, ways to assess their learning, and in which they help their teachers to drive learning and learning outcomes. Imagine the creative energy that might drive the group, and the outcomes that might be achieved. Unlike the movies you are forced, unwillingly, to see, this is learning where you see the point, and want to engage, because it is in some ways your curriculum – as a learner (or a movie goer), you help to own the choices. Our curriculum design must be smart enough to enable learning to be personalised, flexible and responsive. Anything less risks more teachers feeling de-professionalised, and more learners in our schools choosing to disengage.


Steve Wilson is an emeritus professor at Western Sydney University, and an adjunct professor in the university’s School of Education. He now lives in Brisbane, Queensland, in Australia.

Postcard from Alaska: The Dream of an Arctic Winter August 25, 2015

Posted by Editor21C in Social Ecology.
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from Carol Birrell

Have you ever had a dream of doing something in your life so so special that you can hardly imagine it? We ask young children, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ In classrooms, we explore imagination, through reflecting on dreaming the future. We smile at those grandiose plans, and reflect on our own lives where many of those dreams were shattered.

I was recently in Alaska, on a very small island in the south-east of the state, as part of a month long Writers’ Fellowship through The Island Institute. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to come to Alaska- in winter! Many think I am crazy, but trained as a geographer, landscapes vastly different from our own have always fascinated me. But most of all, I have harboured this desire to see the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, as they are more commonly known.

Twenty years ago I bought a book on the Aurora, hoping and wishing that one day I would get to see it. Of course, there is a snag here. Even if you do make it to Alaska, there is no guarantee that you will see the Lights. First of all, it depends on the sunspot activity of the sun, producing streams of charged particles hurtling towards earth at a great pace, and this happens in 11 year cycles, with a peak at about 5 years. 2014 was the peak. Ok so cross that one off the list. Next is the weather itself. Clear skies, no wind, and that usually means temperatures below freezing. And where do you find that? Best chance is inside the Arctic Circle with temps at this time of year down to minus 60F. Now the exact translation of that extreme temp to Celsius is beyond me, but I do know that at about minus 40 both F and C scales converge. I am no scientist, but I can tell you that it is some of the most extreme cold on the planet. What is the coldest I experienced? Maybe minus 1C, hardly in the same category.

Next box to cross off? Even when those conditions have been met, you never know what time the Aurora will turn up, if at all. It is more likely in the wee small hours of the morning, like 1 or 2am, when the temp has dropped even further. A 15-20 min stint is all our human body can take at that temp. Eyeballs can freeze then, so you have to constantly blink, and whatever you do, don’t cry! You cannot breathe in that cold air, or ice could freeze not only the back of your throat, your nasal passages, but also your lungs.

The place I chose to stay was a hop in a plane over the Arctic Circle at a little village called Bettles, occupants 14 in winter, swelling to 30 in summer. No roads in or out. Sometimes it is too cold for planes to fly as the fuel freezes, or the engine freezes, or everything freezes. We were doing well to get in and out of Bettles in a small 6 seater. This is the only way food and provisions get to small places like this in winter. Imagine the costs! Naturally, not much in the way of greens provided but we had hearty bowls of moose and reindeer sausages.

Now, even if the Aurora does show, it may be a weak night of only one colour (mostly green), or it is rather a still show- more like bands of green light that are stationary across those starry night clear skies…

All this is to say, it is quite a palaver to get to see the Northern Lights.

Besides being a Geographer, I have a commitment to experience based learning. In most of my classes at university, I take advantage whenever I can, of introducing experiential learning. There is no substitute. You can ply me with all the apps in the world that simulate all the things that we cannot directly experience, but I know that the direct encounter leaves the most profound imprint. It is learning par excellence.

And there is no comparison between reading about the Aurora Borealis (or seeing youtubes of it) and experiencing it. Sometimes those experiences do not have words, cannot so easily be translated into language that others can comprehend. But they exist, nonetheless, and you know it has changed you, in the deepest way possible.

So I cannot, and would not, try to describe the actual experience to you of being present with the Aurora Borealis on a night so clear and burning that all my hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, became frozen solid. Rather, I want to encourage you to hold on to your own dreams, and chase them, encourage our children and young (and older) students in our classes to seek out their dreams first hand, rather than vicariously, through others. And never, never lose hope.


Dr Carol Birrell is a former lecturer and social ecologist in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She has written several other posts for this blog.


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