Archive for August 2017

Flexing Learning Environments in a Rigid System

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

10 August 2017

There has been chatter in the media about “Modern Learning Environments” (a.k.a. Flexible Learning Environments in MOE-speak) and even a Principal wondering whether what was being provided under this guise was suiting all children. Of course, this was countered by an enthusiast who had a catalogue of the key words –collaboration for innovation, teamwork, challenge, projects, and so on while making the link that such environments in the early years prepared students for the world of employment. All good!

But I do wonder whether the thinking recognises sufficiently that education is an inside-out process rather than outside in. A good teacher provides materials, opportunities, support, guidance and the tools for students to work with the material they have and, when the judgment of the teacher is sound in the provision of all this the student increases their knowledge, skills, interest and development by building on what they already have and we describe this as progress, growth and, in the end, learning.

New Zealand’s great teacher, Sylvia Ashton Warner, described the process as “taking the native imagery of the child and using it for working material.” Vygotsky wrote about “the zone of proximal development” where learning took place at the edge of what the learner already knew.

So, does the environment matter? Yes, it does. Some environments might actually impede learning and I note quite a large emphasis placed in the discussions of the modern/flexible learning environment on creature comforts – warmth, space, light, friendly acoustics, soft furnishings, lively colour schemes, these all add to the schoolroom being a place that is welcoming and nice to be in.

But it is not in itself, sufficient. To invite students into a setting that has the colours, activity, noise and stimulation of a theme park will not on its own achieve good educational outcomes. All these discussions end up back at a fundamental truth – teachers make great classrooms, not architects, interior decorators and elegant technological gadgets (now known as “devices”).

I have seen brilliant teaching under a tree in the outskirts of a village in the Solomon Islands. It was a young teacher. I sked here where the village school was and she replied that this was it. Under a tree, minimal tools, an easel with a small blackboard, students at multiple levels. I would guess that this was not the only school like this. And in developing countries I have seen facilities more reflective of the 19th rather than the 21st Century. But where the teachers were excellent, the students made great progress. To deny that teaching and learning cannot take place without a modern learning environment is to deny most of the world an education.

So, the truth is in the middle. It is great to have excellent facilities, no doubt about it. But it is better to see that every child is working with excellent teachers in ways that reflect their needs in terms of progressing their skills, knowledge and development. This requires teachers prepared to change and to work in new and different ways if the old and one-for-all approach has failed.

Students failing in school is still the biggest challenge and failure in one environment looks much the same as failure in another.

 

 

A fair share in an unfair world – The Demise of Deciles

Stuart Middleton

EdTalkNZ

3 August 2017

 

At last the decile system has gone! Announced in the early 1990s. it was intended to be a mechanism to take account of the socio-economic status of schools in assigning resources to all schools or, to put it more crudely, it was meant to deliver increased funding to schools who taught students who were at risk of failing.

The formula was built around five factors related to the socio-economic standing of parents and caregivers and their level of education, their occupations, the number of people living in the house, and the degree of benefit dependency.

Through a complex process of ranking across the five areas, the numbers were crunched and a “decile rating” tattooed firmly across the forehead of each school. This was to become a badge of honour for those in Deciles 8-10 or a mark of shame for those in Deciles 1-3. Schools in the Decile 4-7 range were in something of a state of suspended judgement in which the reputation of the school depended on other things.

At a time when it was launched there was a developing maniacal level of the worst sort of competition between schools. There was no show at all of the decile rating system being used as a neutral means of assigning resources more fairly. At that time, I was a Principal of a low-decile school. Rather than hugely increased resources which the high-decile schools alleged was being delivered to low-decile schools, I was instead the beneficiary of commiserations and voices lowered as a sign of deep sympathy by others when they discussed the school. That scheme could hardly have been launched at a worse time.

So, let’s be clear – when it came to reputation, high deciles were the winners and low deciles were the losers regardless of school quality. The shocking history of the way low-decile schools were regarded over many years was certain evidence that our national system was broken and that New Zealand could harbour no false impression that it was a united country at least in terms of schooling, This was a situation that flowed from the perceptions of groups of people about other groups of people; it flowed from the “secret courts of the hearts and heads of men and women”; it flowed from a media with a voracious appetite for slinging the dirt at those who were down; it flowed from real estate agents whose views on schools were based only on decile-ratings and “what that told you” about one area or another.

But those going to the low-decile schools saw themselves in this way. Of course, those who went to high decile schools knew they were better than others, those who went to low decile schools often enjoyed going to school, were taught by many excellent and a fair proportion of superb teachers. Teachers who knew that education was about helping people to grow and making changes were attracted to low decile areas. Never make the mistake of thinking that ‘high decile’ and ‘low decile’ are or ever have been an automatic proxy for ‘high quality’ and ‘low quality’.

But that has all changed with the announcement that deciles are out as a risk assessment of the student body in each school replaces it, perhaps 2019 students is in. While not a lot of detail has yet been revealed, some clear distinctions emerge between the old and the new.

  • The money will be follow the students assessed as carrying a risk into their schooling rather than being apportioned on the basis of a statistical generalisation based on a set of untested assumptions about a demographic group in a geographic area.
  • Schools who have disproportionate numbers of students with considerable risk will receive their fair share of the funding that reflects the actual proportion of their student numbers who meet the criteria and not be limited because they have been assigned to a category based on a relatively crudely decile or some part of a decile.
  • The early information suggests that the assessment will be on risk factors known to have a close association with low achievement, be based on actual families and young people who go to the school. The assessment will be based on data which reflect the actual issues faced by a student which impact negatively on their school progress.

The actual categories are a comprehensive list of factors that are known to directly impact on a young persons school performance:

  • Proportion of time spent supported by benefits since birth
  • Child has a Child, Youth and Family notification
  • Mother’s age at child’s birth
  • Father’s offending and sentence history
  • Ethnicity
  • Youth Justice referral
  • Benefit mother unqualified
  • Proportion of time spent overseas since birth
  • Most recent benefit male caregiver is not the birth father
  • Mother’s average earned income over the previous 5 years
  • School transience
  • Country of birth
  • Father’s average earned income over the previous 5 years
  • Migrant /New Zealand born
  • Number of children (mother)
  • Mother received third tier benefits (payments directed to alleviating hardship)

Clearly the calculations will achieve a far higher level of granularity than previously and, most importantly will not be made public – schools will receive their funding as part of the annual process – bulk funding, however unpopular with teachers, would be the ultimate protection of this anonymity.

The biggest challenge will be to the professionalism of all in education to resist attempts to undermine this new approach and to “leak” or to become partners in dirty tricks with the media that might wish to deconstruct the funding package – were this to happen it would simply perpetrate the dubious behaviours of the past. I have faith in the integrity of the our profession which I hope will in turn  have faith in this unique and bold approach to finding a level of social equity between schools.

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