jump to navigation

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.
Tags: , , , , ,

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.

What are the big questions in equity in education right now? October 15, 2014

Posted by Editor21C in Social Justice and Equity through Education.
Tags: , , ,
add a comment

from Associate Professor Susanne Gannon

One year after an important Equity in Education symposium at UWS  raised this question, a new scholarly book has been published with an international publisher. Contemporary Issues of Equity in Education (Cambridge Scholars Press, Oct. 2014) includes research from scholars in Queensland, NSW and Victoria encompassing primary, secondary and tertiary sectors of education.

According to the editors – Associate Professor Susanne Gannon and Professor Wayne Sawyer of the Centre for Educational Research at UWS – education is one of the “great social justice projects of modern democracy”. They suggest that high quality education must be underpinned by “equity principles” including “access to good schools, challenging and engaging curriculum, committed teaching and engaged learning and appropriate resourcing”. However, they argue, these principles are “currently under assault” from a wide range of directions. The chapters in the book demonstrate some of the ways that researchers are exploring these dilemmas.

Chapters address a wide range of issues including international league tables and testing regimes and their impacts; everyday language and literacy practices of multilingual children; sexuality education in PDHPE curriculum; the assets, resources and experiences of refugee students in schools and universities; high demand pedagogies in low SES schools across diverse curriculum areas; the use of technology for community building; young people’s aspirations and anxieties about their futures; the impacts of increased school leaving ages on young people in single sex, ethnically diverse schools; innovative teacher education for high poverty contexts; beginning teacher experiences in the profession and suggestions for the redesign of secondary schools. 1

Participatory and collaborative research that has been co-designed and conducted with teachers, schools and education systems features throughout the book, with one of the chapters directly addressing the complexities and rewards of ‘teacher-as-researcher’. Throughout the book teachers are understood as intellectual workers, who have much more to offer educational debates than the low-level compliance required by externally designed and imposed assessment and curriculum regimes.

As well as reporting on current research into educational equity, the symposium and book also identified areas that require prioritising in future research. For example, at the upper end of secondary schooling we need to know much more about issues pertaining to school retention and transitions to post-school contexts including further study, training and work. How are these experienced by young people, what are their particular needs and how well are these understood by educational and employment sectors in volatile labour markets? How are senior schooling curriculum and opportunities serving the needs of young people and building and extending on the ‘funds of knowledge’ that they bring with them to school and to the work place? In teacher education, we need to understand how tertiary courses can balance disciplinary expertise with social justice imperatives that ensure beginning teachers are willing and able to support quality outcomes for students from diverse backgrounds and experiences. How might we develop beginning teachers’ capacities to understand and undertake research in collaboration with experienced colleagues and mentors?

More broadly, research agendas need to focus on unpacking the complex factors that contribute to the persistence of educational inequality in Australia and to better understand how schools and teachers can intervene to improve educational engagement and success for young people, their families and their communities. Future networks and activities will respond to these areas of concern. The first of these is the upcoming Equity! Now more than Ever!” conference run by the Centre for Professional Learning/ NSW Teachers Federation, and the University of Western Sydney, on Nov 7th.

The book Contemporary Issues in Equity in Education can be ordered from the publisher online  where you can also access an excerpt comprising the Editorial and the first chapter ‘Equity in Australian Schooling: The absent Presence of Socioeconomic Factors’ by Professor Bob Lingard and Dr Sam Sellar of the University of Queensland.


1. Note that, as well as those already named, authors include Robert Stevens, Carol Reid, Jacqueline D’Warte, Margaret Somerville, Tania Ferfolja, Jacqueline Ullman, Florence McCarthy, Margaret Vickers, Katina Zammit, Loshini Naidoo, Jo Lampert, Bruce Burnett, Eve Mayes, Leonie Arthur, Joanne Orlando, Anne Power, Lew Zipin and Iris Dumenden. You can find details of their chapters in the Extract available on the CSP website link above.


Susanne Gannon is an associate professor and ‘Equity’ research theme leader in the Centre for Educational Research and the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.


Teaching Chinese with Australian characteristics October 7, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Education Policy and Politics, Primary Education, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
Tags: , , , ,
add a comment

from Professor Michael Singh

In 2012 it is Chinese-Australians – teachers and students – in senior secondary schools across the country who are now making a substantial contribution to securing Australia’s linguistic and intellectual engagements with speakers of Chinese (Mandarin or Han Yu) within Australia and around the world.

Clearly, Australia’s non-discriminatory immigration program is very effective in building this nation’s multilingual assets and providing Australians with the basis for connecting with a world in which multilingualism is the norm.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Opposition Leader Tony Abbott recognise the importance of having second language learners in Australia to study Chinese, Indonesian, Korean and Japanese. Both leaders see it as important for the prospects of Australia in what is called the ”Asian Century.”

Wisely, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority’s (ACARA) guidelines for developing the Australian Languages Curriculum make provision for first, background and second language learners. As an important policy framework, this gives all Australian students a chance to do well.

The Western Sydney Region of the New South Wales Department of Education and Communities is successfully stimulating the learning of Chinese among some five thousand primary and second school students who are learning it as a second language.

Volunteer university graduates from Ningbo (China) work with classroom teachers as teacher-researchers to investigate ways to make Chinese learnable for second language learners in Australia.

The Ningbo Volunteers are also studying research degrees in the Centre for Educational Research at the University of Western Sydney. Through these studies they are investigating a number of intractable educational problems.

Sino-Australian teacher - researcher education: Networking   international learning & bilingual communicative capabilities

Sino-Australian teacher – researcher education: Networking  
international learning & bilingual communicative capabilities

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is studying ways of making Chinese learnable for second language learners in Australia, rather than insisting that it is difficult for second language learners to acquire Chinese. So, the Volunteers are studying ways of teaching Chinese with Australian characteristics to children just beginning to learn this second language.

They have shown that second language learners need programs and pedagogies that stimulate their interests, engage their enthusiasms, and reward them with successful language learning experiences.

Likewise, their research findings indicate that children, parents and teachers must recognise that second language education is about learners, parents and teachers, and that they must have their reasons for learning a second language recognised and directly engaged within the teaching/learning process.

A key finding from their studies is that for beginners, a focus on the social and linguistic similarities between English and Chinese is more successful and rewarding than a focus on linguistics and emphasising differences. This has led the Volunteers to engage in the research-based development of pedagogies that work to reduce the ‘cost’ for beginners of learning Chinese as a second language; not making it a difficult and unrewarding experience.

Second languages education is being further stimulated through research into the formal recognition of the Ningbo Volunteers’ bilingual communicative competence in the University of Western Sydney.

With some 150 languages spoken by Australia’s university students, formal acknowledgement of student-teachers’ linguistic capabilities as part of Australian teacher education programs would provide an added stimulus to second language learning.

This research is also contributing to a better understanding of the historical alternations that have affected the local/global flows of languages and knowledge. Such knowledge is necessary for explaining the renaissance of China as a global centre for knowledge production – knowledge that is being produced in Han zi.

Together this teacher-research is providing a firm base for second language education in Australian schools and is inspiring much confidence.

Over the past three years this research has contributed original knowledge about the characteristics of programs and pedagogies that make Chinese learnable, and provided really useful ideas to help schools and universities to collaborate in delivering on the large-scale, long-term investment policy-makers promise to provide.

Michael Singh is a Professor of Education in the School of Education’s Centre for Educational Research at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.

Mapping the early English speech of very remote Aboriginal children July 1, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Early Childhood Education, Primary Education.
Tags: , , , ,
1 comment so far

 from Lawrence Kenny

“Dis one crying get football” (6 year old Central Western Desert child).

At first glance this description of a child upset because their football has been kicked into a creek on a family outing may appear clumsy and unsophisticated for a six year old speaker. However, for this very remote Aboriginal child this sentence is one of many milestones in their journey to becoming a competent and meaningful speaker of English. It is one of a number of major linguistic steps in their journey from being immersed and fluent in their own homeland Aboriginal language, to becoming a bilingual or multilingual speaker that includes English.

It is important to map the linguistic journey of these very remote Aboriginal English as Foreign Language (EFL) speakers as they are repeatedly identified and reported as having the poorest educational results of all Australian school children, yet they begin their Western education journey arriving at school being competent speakers of a very complex language system.

For many early childhood educators it is widely accepted that language is the key factor for all higher level cognitive functions and that language development and comprehension does affect the development of later literacy skills. As an early childhood educator in a very remote Aboriginal context for more than 7 years I have had the privilege of being immersed within a cultural and linguistic context unique within the wider Australian social milieu. During these 7 years I was involved for a year with the Indigenous Language Speaking Student (ILSS) program funded by the Australian Commonwealth Government. A major part of the ILSS program is the reporting and assessment of the English oral language abilities of 6 year old very remote Aboriginal children enrolled in the ILSS program.

During my year within this program it became apparent that there was no systematic or culturally appropriate method for the collection of English oral language data and, more disconcertingly, that no English oral language profile existed for these EFL learners. When educators and education systems within this unique educational context can understand and identify the development patterns and milestones in English oral language for these EFL learners, the better able all involved can cater for and to the education of these unique Australian EFL learners. 

It is important that education providers and curriculum developers in the Northern Territory and throughout Australia recognise that the education and linguistic contexts of very remote Aboriginal communities throughout Australia are extremely distinct from non remote Aboriginal and non Aboriginal communities. This distinction is important as it recognises that very remote Aboriginal children are English as Foreign Language (EFL) learners as opposed to English as Second Language (ESL) learners. The term EFL is distinct from ESL as EFL learners are not immersed within the broader social milieu of the language being learnt, whilst ESL learners are surrounded by the social and cultural elements of the language being learned.

Unfortunately this recognition is not apparent with the consistent application of mainstream English as first language and ESL developmental profiles in the very remote Aboriginal context. The application of these developmental models or profiles creates a language disparity and a deficit model for the assessment of these unique learners. This leads to a dislocation or a content/context divide that does not recognise the appearance and consolidation of emergent developmental behaviours and indicators for oral SAE that are common to very remote Aboriginal school children in their first few years of formal Western schooling.

The application of these developmental profiles is problematic as they are undertaken in mainstream urban and/or rural communities where SAE is the taken for granted first language, and they do not include many of the emergent developmental behaviours and indicators that are the foundations of more advanced SAE speech.

As the Australian education landscape undergoes a dramatic shift towards a National curriculum framework, a part of this new direction in the Northern Territory is the introduction of the Diagnostic Net for Transition to Year 9 (NT DET, 2010) [now called by NT DET the Diagnostic for Transition to Year 2]. The language profile within this document identifies six areas in the development of SAE oracy and although comprehensive, this developmental profile clearly reflects mainstream education developmental profiles and does not encompass any early and emergent language behaviours or indicators. These early emergent language indicators are what many very remote Aboriginal students display in their first few years of school, and this is the content /context divide for these English as a Foreign Language learners.

The T-9 Diagnostic Net provides an incomplete view of the developmental process as it begins with a description of learners that have mastered the emergent SAE oral behaviours and indicators. For example, the Transition speaking and listening profile describes students as speaking in sentences of four to five words and that they are able to join these short sentences using the words and, or, but, and because. This is the ‘expectation’ for these students by the end of their Transition year, which is the first year of school contact for many of these very remote Aboriginal children who are at least five years old but no more than six years old (NT DET, 2010, pp.30-31).

After their first year in Transition children move into first grade or year one and are now in their second year of schooling. Table 1.1 outlines the expected “grammatical markers” and “little words” (NT DET, 2010, p.30) that students must be able to use by the end of this year.

Table 1.1 Grammatical markers and little words
Present progressive Driving
Plurals Balls
Regular past tense she walked
Irregular past tense broke, fell
Possessive daddy’s…
3rd person present tense regular he works…
3rd person present tense irregular she does
Contractions he’s…, she’s…
Little words a, the, is, am, are

NT DET (2010) Diagnostic Net for Transition to Year 9. The Continua. Oral Language Development in the Curriculum. Speaking and Listening (p.30).

 The Diagnostic Net T-9 Continua (2010) does not cover emergent oral development as it begins with Transition students being able to speak and link four to five word sentences together by the end of their first year of school contact. The Diagnostic net then sees students progress to year one or first grade and depicts students using grammatical markers for tense and contractions in their speech by the end of this year of schooling.

The anticipated developmental progression over the first two years of school envisions these very remote students acquiring the previously discussed oral SAE abilities, yet does not acknowledge that beginning learners of a second language need time for exposure and consolidation in the learning process that may begin with an extended silent period before moving through holophrases and into the stages of telegraphic speech in their use of SAE (Ellis, 2009).

To conclude, very remote Aboriginal children in the NT arrive at school with little or no experience with English and the application of mainstream and ESL developmental models in the very remote Aboriginal context fails to recognise that developmental profiles must complement learners to be useful documents for teachers.

References:    Ellis. R. (2009). The Study of Second Language Acquisition. (2nd Ed). Oxford. Oxford University Press.    NT DET. (2010). Diagnostic Net for Transition to Year 9. Retrieved on the 29th September from http://www.det.nt.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/13969/DiagnosticNetT9.pdf

Lawrence Kenny has two degrees from the University of Western Sydney, graduating in 1998 with a Bachelor of Teaching (Early Childhood), and with a Bachelor of Education [Honours 1st class] in 2000. Lawrence is currently enrolled in the School of Education’s PhD program and is conducting research on the development of Standard Australian English in the early school years in four very remote Aboriginal communities in the Central Western Desert region of the Northern Territory. Lawrence is an employee of the Northern Territory Department of Education and Training and has worked as a teacher and teaching principal in this context for more than 7 years.

Teachers For a Fair Go: Exemplary Teachers in Low SES Schools September 26, 2010

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
Tags: , , ,

From Associate Professor Geoff Munns

Drawing on the highly successful Teachers for a Fair Go collaborative research project, Geoff Munns discusses the types of high interest, high challenge practices that teachers can plan for to really engage their students. We at this university are convinced that such personalised approaches to learning are fundamental to the practices of successful 21st century schools.

Few would argue that teachers can make a difference for students. For those students in low SES communities, having a great teacher can be even more critical for success at school in social and academic outcomes. Teachers For a Fair Go (Fair Go Project) is a UWS School of Education research project that is co-researching with 30 “exemplary teachers of students in poverty” the personal and professional qualities that can improve the educational and life circumstances of their students and so positively contribute to their community’s well-being.

The project is funded by an ARC Linkages grant with NSW DET’s Priority Schools Programs as the industry partner. Teachers in the project come from a wide variety of Australian schools from urban and rural contexts and across all stages of schooling (pre-school to Year 12): Lakemba, Macquarie Fields, Mt Druitt, Granville, Airds, Belmore, Fairfield, Canley Vale, Cambridge Park, Blairmount, Busby, Fairfield West, Lansvale, Coffs Harbour, Mungindi, Coonamble, Bogabilla, Brewarrina, Portland, Taree, Bombala. Four of the teachers are Indigenous.

Let me introduce you to two of these teachers. Dan and Chantal teach in urban schools located in low SES communities. Dan is a new career teacher, in his third year of teaching. By contrast, Chantal is a teaching Principal who has taught for 20 years. There are marked differences in their approaches to teaching, but much in common at the heart of what engages their students.

Dan (Year 6)
Dan teaches in a large inner suburban primary school (800 students) in Sydney, Australia. The student cohort represents over 40 cultural-linguistic groups, with the majority being Muslim and Arabic-speaking Australians. Almost 100 % of the students come from multilingual backgrounds (Language Backgrounds Other Than English). The school is a very supportive learning community, with a stated purpose “to strive for excellence and equity”. Importantly for a teacher like Dan, the school’s leadership encourages him to take risks and be innovative in his pedagogy, within a context of strong support, professional dialogue and high expectations.
Dan’s classroom is characterised by active, constructivist and negotiated learning. All students, regardless of academic level are constantly involved with big ideas, important themes and high intellectual quality.

Students perceive learning as fun due to Dan’s capacity to initiate activities using surprise, unexpected props or actions. Learning experiences are authentic and regularly extended outside the classroom and connected with the local community. He sustains a sense of excitement in learning by involving students in problem-solving and guiding them with questions that develop ownership, respect and autonomy. Dan’s pedagogy has changed students’ attitudes. They now realise that they can be accountable for learning. Individual contribution, effort and risk-taking are valued. Planning, process and engaging messages are features of Dan’s teaching. Quality teaching is the focus over behaviour.

Analysis of Dan’s pedagogy after classroom observations revealed the following features that the research believes work towards high levels of student engagement:
• There is a high rotation of challenging, rich tasks. The pedagogy features hard work for both the students and their teacher. There are no back-outs or compromises and the pedagogy needs perseverance for all involved.
• Students are critical learners, continually being asked to think and solve authentic, hands-on challenges for themselves with the teacher as co-learner.
• The classroom is a multi-modal environment: students are skilled users of technology and expected to be able to use it autonomously.
• Students make decisions. Dan sees them “as guardians of knowledge”. All learners are included in the design of the task.
• Minor discipline issues are handled dispassionately and explicitly. Discipline issues are regarded as “works in progress … these kids are a great project”.
• Strong teaching and learning attention are provided for lower level students. In other situations, such students might have received a nagging, behaviour focus rather than a teacher who shares their thinking, assists them as a co-learner and expects success with differentiated tasks and assessment.
• Very few students get punished during any day and no-one influences the planned pedagogy. Dan believes he can “control” the students but chooses rather to share the pedagogical spaces.
• The pedagogy works towards high ideals of learning and this is maintained without worrying about what others might think. Dan is true to his own pedagogical beliefs and tries not to falter in these.

Intensive and sustained classroom observations in this classroom revealed that a potentially challenging group of students showed strong involvement with and acceptance of their learning experiences. As the students put it:

We do learning and it’s fun at the same time … exciting … experiments and projects … Fun, exciting…the teacher helps us with the hard work. In other classes we just wrote stuff from the board and learnt nothing … In this class you can imagine.

Chantal (Teaching Principal)
Chantal is Principal of a small primary school (180 students) in an inner suburban community in Sydney. Not dissimilar to Dan’s school, it has a large population of students living in multilingual families (80%), and Arabic is the largest language group. When Chantal was appointed to the school as Principal (2006) it had fewer students and she was both a teacher and a Principal. This was a deliberate choice, as she wanted to be both a teacher and a leader. The school has since grown to the point where she no longer needs to teach, but maintains active teaching roles in the school. As a teaching Principal Chantal continued her recognition of the importance of high expectations and the need to increase student participation in learning rather than accepting student passivity.

For our research we observed Chantal teaching a number of different primary-aged groups (approximately 9 to 12 year old students). As mentioned above, Chantal has a different approach to teaching than Dan. She has an explicit approach and is more strongly foregrounded in classrooms, while still allowing students’ choices in the design of activities. Her teaching encourages students to be active and reflective in their learning. Continual reflections refocus tasks, processes and learning quality. Cooperative learning is frequently employed to cater for the needs and abilities of multi-staged, academically mixed and culturally diverse groups of students. Students perceive learning as fun and exciting due to Chantal’s capacity for humour and her ability to focus on conversations about learning, higher order thinking and challenging work. Learning experiences are invariably authentic and problem-based, promoting responsibility and shared decision making about the school. Empathy, respect and ownership are encouraged.

As with Dan, Chantal values quality pedagogy over behaviour, though does keep a tighter “Principal’s rein” over her students. Chantal’s commitment is obvious and infectious. “My whole belief, my philosophy, my passion is out there – it’s on my sleeve.”

Following is an analysis of the key elements of Chantal’s engaging pedagogies:

• There is an overarching focus on meta-cognition and the use of technical language.
• All classroom work is challenging with continual reflections about learning refocusing the task, processes and learning.
• Risk-taking and self-regulation are encouraged throughout. Feedback targets risk-taking and autonomy. There are frequent opportunities for students to be decision-makers.
• A consistent use of narrative links learning activities and builds relationships.
• Discourse is consistently conversational, often personalised and related to Chantal’s and the students’ worlds.
• Students remain very industrious and receptive for the most part of each lesson – there are strong signs of engagement throughout all lessons. Students are expected to “get into it” and do so.
• Lessons move on and students are expected students to be “on the game” – to remain focused and follow the learning processes.
• There is a calm but firm focus characterised by humour and positivity, but always on learning. Distracted students are quickly brought back to task without emotion. Students not on task are not appreciated and they know it. This brings an unhurried, learning focused environment with time to think.

The Teachers For a Fair Go Project realizes there are many different ways towards student engagement, and these are invariably linked with contextual issues, student responses and teacher-preferred style. So while Chantal’s classrooms look, feel and sound different to Dan’s, her pedagogy resonates strongly with the FGP student engagement framework. There are high cognitive, high affective and high operative learning experiences for all learners and her students are actively involved in reflective and supportive learning communities. As with Dan, her students understand and appreciate what she is doing for them:

She helps us imagine, use stories, ask questions, mix up words, read between the lines to get meaning … When explaining and we work, she asks us to wait, absorb, wait so that we understand … She makes us feel confident and happy by walking around, smiling when we are doing something hard … She is always positive … She talks about learning a lot, tells us some of her tricks, tells funny stories, uses humour … She gives reasons for changing behaviour, uses a polite, calm voice, then they understand … She talks about learning and being a safe, respectful learner.

These two snapshots of classrooms are offered as exemplars for engaging teaching within the framing of the Fair Go Project (Fair Go Team, 2006; Munns, 2007). Of course this is not to suggest that these are the only pedagogical ways that students can become engaged. However, they do offer a picture of classrooms where there is a strong suggestion that the teachers’ approaches to learning have encouraged student engagement.

References: Fair Go Team (2006) School Is For Me: Pathways to Student Engagement. Sydney, Priority Schools Funding Program, NSW Department of Education and Training.    Munns, G. (2007). “A sense of wonder: Student engagement in low SES school communities”. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 11: 301-15.

[Note this has post been taken from a longer article Munns, G. (2010, in press) Thinking the unthinkable: Teachers who engage students in poverty, in Portelli, J. & McMahon, B. (Eds), Student Engagement in Urban Schools: Beyond Neoliberal Discourses. North Carolina: Information Age Publishers.]

Geoff Munns is a research leader in the Teachers for a Fair Go project at the University of Western Sydney Australia. He is highly experienced in, and committed to, devepoping pedagogies that produce equitable outcomes for young people from indigenous and low socio-economic status backgrounds. He is also very affirming of the concept of teachers-as-researchers.

%d bloggers like this: