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Month: March 2013

Talk-ED: In Praise of Principals – New Zealand's National Treasures


written by Marilyn Gwilliam

I am rather keen on Carl Honore’s book “In Praise of Slow”.  Published in 2004, it sparked a kind of cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better.  Chapters in the book include commentary on slow cooking, slow eating, slow urban planning, slow leisure, slow travel, raising children slowly, and a number of other interesting aspects of our lives. 

In the book, Honore suggests that we should try to do things as well as possible rather than as fast as possible and when I think about the work of most of my principal colleagues, the notion of writing in praise of them as they try to do things as well as possible, has immense appeal.

Most work willingly and endlessly to ensure that the students and staff in their schools have  productive and fulfilling lives.  This is one of the basic premises of the slow movement. Principals encourage their teachers to savour and maximise every minute and hour of learning, rather than just counting the minutes and the hours.  They try hard to do everything at the right speed to ensure the students in their schools reach their optimum level of performance, and personal development.

Principals understand that learning takes time, you can’t fast forward it, it is different for everyone and you can’t actually make it happen.  The multiple conditions for learning have to be right. 

Not one of us would disagree that the improvement in student achievement is a core role and function of all schools especially in the areas of literacy and numeracy in our primary schools.  But right now, we are being told that it is the fault of schools alone that some students are not achieving or failing, and it is schools alone that have to fix it all up.

This seems to be the rhetoric that is around these days.  It feels like it is all about how badly schools are doing, rather than how incredibly well many are doing.

Over the last 2 years I have noticed an immense change amongst a number of my colleagues.  There are many around who are incredibly experienced. They see their principalship as a vocation and they have dedicated their professional lives to students in their schools and the teachers who teach them.  They have been constantly mindful of their role in their communities. Their principalship has not been a job.  It has been a huge part of their lives in many ways.  They are very effective, but currently very disillusioned principals.

In 2007, with the introduction of the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC), we were required to consult with our communities to develop our school’s curriculum around the fundamental principles of the NZC.  At that time we saw possibly the most meaningful rounds of consultation, debate and discussion between schools and their communities that we have ever had.

The Ministry of Education received more than 10,000 submissions during the NZC development that were collated and taken into consideration.

Secretary for Education Karen Sewell in the foreword to the NZC, states that: “It includes a clear set of principles on which to base curriculum decision making.”  Principals really took this on board and became readily engaged in exciting curriculum design initiatives. There was an understanding that the competency based, broad and responsive nature of the NZC meant that schools could design their own unique curriculum tailored to their students and the expressed aspirations of their communities.

It was an exciting time.  There was genuine collaboration happening and principals felt that Ministry of Education staff were sincere in their efforts to consult, to listen and to integrate feedback from the sector into the final document.  Principals felt that they had a framework to develop successful and well educated citizens for the 21st century and lifelong learning capabilities in their students and staff.

It all seems so long ago.  Currently, the broad goals of education at the top feel narrow and economic, rather than humanitarian.   There seems to be little connection between the future and the best of the past.  The NZC hardly gets a mention any more.  Many feel a huge sense of loss.  This loss includes professional trust and respect. 

Many in the primary sector are consciously working hard to ensure that learning areas other than literacy and numeracy continue to have a strong focus in their schools.  Others continue to really struggle to move beyond consistency, reliability and validity issues related to this government’s national standards in reading, writing and maths. 

So where to from here?  We would all welcome strong and transformational leadership from the top in education.  The appointment of a new Secretary for Education may hopefully provide this.  All principals in state funded schools want our work to be meaningful, useful, valued and supported by the government of the day.  We would all welcome a truly collaborative approach to finding the best ways forward for all our students.  And I believe that we have a right to expect this. 



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Talk-ED: Back in the USA!


Headed off to the USA and the sense of excitement never lessens – 12 days, two conferences, a number of institutional visits and, of course, catching up with “the network” of people engaged in some of the same areas that consume our interest – disengagement, priority learners, continuity within the system and so on.

The best of what is in the USA is as good as it gets in the world, the worst is unspeakably bad and there is a huge mountain of stuff in between.  I like to think that I get to see the best.

That’s why I think the discussion about Charter Schools in New Zealand has been one of lowest quality which defies the evidence (see previous paragraph!).  They make that mistake in the US as well.  The education research industry is huge but like so much of the education research throughout the world (should I qualify that and say “Anglo Saxon world?).  It gets done, researchers meet to report their research to other researchers.  The elegance of the methodology can be breathtaking, the discussion cerebral and well-informed.  The trouble is that by and large classroom teachers are left largely unaware of the research and its implications for practice.

And they have little choice but to continue to do the same old thing with the same old way to get the same old results even with some misgivings.  It isn’t the fault of teachers, it is the result of a research industry that is driven by its own imperatives rather than by what is best for students.

I first came to this conclusion in 1983 when I returned from a year at the University of London Institute of Education working with the great and sadly now late group that consisted of Harold Rosen, James Britten, Nancy Martin, John Dixon, Lesley Stratta and a wider group of acolytes who were changing the face of English teaching.  They were doing this by immersing themselves with teachers in their practice and in their daily lives as teachers rather than other applied linguistic researchers.  Indeed, the researcher on the other side of the corridor, the Department for the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language may have been a tribe in Papua New Guinea for all the sharing that went on.

At that point in my life I made a decision, the life of a researcher was not for me.  I preferred the life of a broker of research.  It’s not about showing how clever we are, it is all about what impact we have.  Give me a number of research studies and I shall tell you in five bullet points what they mean for practice.  And there is not enough of this happening.

Fortunately, New Zealand has an impressive list of exceptions to all this.  John Hattie has through his work brought vast tracts of research into the orbit of teachers.  His Visible Learning is a touchstone for many a discussion.  Wait!  Before you indulge yourselves, check out what the research says.  Russell Bishop is another who has had impact –  takes the research and turns it into action in classrooms and schools through a deeper understanding of culturally sensitive pedagogy.  Instead of simply setting up an agenda, Bishop has given teachers a technology for better performance and better results.   Marie Clay was another – her research into reading translated onto a programme for “reading recovery” that captured the interest of the education world internationally.

This is not to devalue the worth of good educational research but without that second wave of simplifying and popularising, without the processes of translation into practice, change would not happen.

In the area of disengagement there is a bucket load of theory and research. It is just that it appears to have little impact on keeping students in school.  This will be a key interest in the next two weeks.  The statistics in the USA continue to go south while the researchers head north to conferences – I promise you that on my return I shall in one blog (800 words) summarise where the thinking is at, without smoke and mirrors, wire or trapdoors and in a language that runs the danger of being understood.

That is a little bit flippant, I know, but I do long for a simpler world where those who know can explain to those who don’t know what it is we all need to know.  And in education it will be all about how we do a better job for someone else, the student.  One day the penny will drop that this whole industry is not about serving those who work in it,  it is entirely about others. But is that very different from most businesses?

Ahh, the USA looms closer and closer – that magical land of the best, the worst, the greatest successes and the greatest failures.  It will be good to visit UC Berkeley when I catch up with those I worked with in 2007 and 2008.  And to enjoy those quirky features such as the parking sign – P for Parking,  NP for No Parking and those spaces marked NL – those parks reserved for Nobel Laureates!  I shall do this on my way to Oakland to visit community colleges serving some of the most disadvantaged students in the US.  Talk about contrast!!!


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Pathways-ED: Well… on the other hand!


We love them, those binary sets of words that trip off the tongue – bacon and eggs, night and day, love and marriage, and so on. In education we also love them and discourse has long been trotting out pairings such as theory / content, academic / vocational, practitioners / no-practitioners, policy / practice, and so on.

Well there are some new ones emerging.

On-line / face-to-face

Often this is presented as a choice between two quire dissimilar delivery methods but experience is showing that they might not be all that different, especially where the technologies of on-line delivery are used simply to replicate the approaches of face-to-face. A recent development that challenges face-to-face is the rapid development of MOOCs – Mass Open On-line Courses – from such prestigious institutions as Stanford and Harvard and MIT (the one in the US!). They are recently talking about how these might be credentialed – that could open a challenge or two.

The truth is in the middle – face-to-face and on-line are not polar opposites at all – and where they are blended they can be powerful.

Digital Natives / Digital Migrants

Again often used by those whose reading about IT and its impact on education was premised on a hope that it would help explain why there sensed to be a different between the typically older group of teachers and the typically younger group of students when it came to engagement with the new technologies and their uses. But a key difference that is emerging is that the first of these groups – teachers – want be seem willing to embrace the technologies favoured by the young while the second of these two groups – students – is ambivalent about the attempts of the oldies to colonise their i-Spaces – Facebook, Twitter, and the like.

Just watch the techniques used to take electronic photos. While we oldies are holding the camera at a height that and in a way that you would with any old SLR , squinting to look at the screen through the right part of the progressives the young ones are firing off photos and videos with a nonchalance and ease shooting material with the ease of someone with a water pistol.

A recent OECD Report suggests that students are far less enthusiastic about teachers abnd education embracing “their technology” than we might have thought.

Learning / Teaching

Possible the silliest binary distinction of the lot. The Maori knew this in their use of the word ako. I was once admonished for saying “teaching and learning” when I should have said “learning and teaching” – that did it for me.

A simple question: If no learning has occurred can teaching be said to have happened? There is only learning.

Individual / Group

 Difficult discussion take place about group activity and assessment, the role of the individual in the group , where the boundaries are, what should be done about those who do not contribute. It is not an issue really, a group is only a collection of individuals, the best groups are those where individuals are aligned, share purpose and value both their own roles and the roles of others. Members of a group in an education setting are not partners for life, joined at the hip, consigned to a life of togetherness. They are simply working in a different way.

Policy and Practice

 Policy without practice is simply a page or two of hot air. Practices that are uniformed by policy are simply scattered shot that stands a chance of hitting the target at least a little bit.

Reading and Writing

 The word “literacy” has done us no good and served little purpose other than to obscure the fact that reading and writing are the core skills of a literate person. Reading can be taught by reading and writing can be taught by writing. The seeming decline in writing as an activity that brings pleasure is a reflection of the decline in reading for pleasure. Being unable to read and write is a precarious spot to be in – go check the gaols if you seek confirmation of this.

Academic / Vocational

How we love to class some educational activity as academic and other educational activity as vocational. Why not clean work education and dirty work education? Or sitting-down work education and standing-up work education. Or white-collar……wait a minute this is getting out of have and none of it is true.

All education is both academic and vocational. The universities are the most vocation institutions of the lot – degrees are re-tailored to attract those who aspire to certain jobs, market-brags are made about “our” graduates and their levels of employment and money (especially money), and overall the focus is markedly vocational. Meanwhile technical education is increasingly “academic” and in many respects always has been, especially in institutional settings. We need to agree that all institutional learning is both academic and vocational.

If we don’t we continue to promote that most insidious of binary distinctions – employed or unemployed!


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Talk-ED: Knock, knock who's there?


There are two pieces of work that need to come together but one seems very coy and has yet to poke its nose out of the burrow.

The Report of the Review of the New Zealand Teachers Council is seemingly either flawed or proposes radical changes for it to be taking the time it is, to be out in the open and therefore open to wide discussion.

This should happen before the legislation for Charter Schools (Partnership Schools Kura Houora) returns to the House. The review could have in it the solution to a key characteristic of the Education Act Amendment Bill that establishes the Partnership Schools Model – the capacity to engage a wider skill set of teaching competencies in bringing increased pathways into the programme.

This clause that has resulted in some hysteria about the likelihood that such Partnership Schools might engage “unregistered teachers”.  But they are “unregistered” only in the sense that they could not be registered under the old closed shop definitions of the rules that the Teachers Council worked under.

Not only did you have to be a fit and proper person to teach (no police record, previous issues etc) but you had to have a university degree (or face financial punishment) and have undergone a specific teachers college programme (or be paid the education minimum wage).  Furthermore, there were sector specific variations on the theme which seem more to relate to the pipeline created towards different professional organisations.

Did such a system work?  No, it did not.

The number of teachers who are terminated due to unprofessional conduct are relatively few, a tiny proportion. But many of them are registered teachers. A system or registration is no absolute guarantee that the perverted will be kept out of the schools. Nor is dishonesty driven from the schools by it. The best that can be hoped for is that a rigorous process will work with zero tolerance and be effective in both detection and punishment.

Will the review of the NZ Teachers council address this? It would be good to know so that those issues can be taken out of the Charter Schools (Partnership Schools Kura Houora) discussion as they would be no more relevant to that category of school than they are to all schools.

That leaves the issue of the relevant set of qualifications required for the teachers to impart knowledge and lead novice learners at all levels to a point where their skills are secure and they see a future in which their pathways are clear,  for which they are well-prepared and in which they will have appropriately qualified teachers with the requisite and up-to-date skills.

There needs to be a distinction between a person’s being fit and proper to teach and the instructional skill sets that they have.  The conventional approach to the registration of teachers has restricted the category of “registered teacher” to a person with a relatively narrow range of experience and skill.  A Partnership School that intends to tackle the wider issues of student achievement will need to have access to a wider set of skills than those of the conventional teaching force. Whether the extent of this can be captured in a “number” or “percentage” of the teaching positions is a moot point.

 Clearly that is not the case at present.  Too many students are not getting the basic skills of language and mathematics, too many students have no clear idea of a pathways, and too many students are ill-prepared.

Now getting into what has been called duelling with statistics is pointless.  The effectiveness of the current registration processes cannot be said to be robust simply because “only a few” teachers are ratbags.  Similarly, current school programmes cannot be said to be effective simply because “only a few” students fail (actually this is far from the truth, “quite a few” fail).

Unless we resolutely continue to ignore the evidence and continue to work in the same old way and only with teachers with the same skill sets, the results will continue to disappoint.

If we are to have in the school teachers who bring different backgrounds, work and industry experience and practical skills coupled with a flair for sharing them, the pathways into teaching will need to become much more accepting of different qualifications and of what constitutes “training” for the job.

Undertaking a programme in a college of education in a university will always be one way to move into teaching. But it can never be more than one way when the entry criteria to such courses exclude students without a degree from the same kinds of institution.  And who presents themselves at the gate is the result of a myriad of checks and hurdles. Large portions of the population are excluded from the prospect of being a teacher let alone the actual chance to become one.

If New Zealand is to take note of successful education systems in other countries, it will need to recognise that getting the right people into teaching and getting the students into the right courses is paramount.

Perhaps the Review of the NZ Teachers Council will set us off in a good direction. But while the report is not released we still do not know.


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Talk-ED: With tongues hanging out


It never ceases to make me wonder whether or not we have become daft when I see constant references to this kind of “literacy” and that kind of “literacy”.

We see that “financial literacy” is needed to enable those who struggle with money – actually this seems largely to be a euphemism for “managing without much money”. To use computers well you must be “computer literate” by being steeped in “digital literacy”.

In fact the web tells me that there seems to be myriad varieties of literacy – scientific literacy, cultural literacy, mathematical literacy (this could be numeracy perhaps) global literacy, visual literacy, media literacy. And thus it all becomes clear.

“Literacy” no longer means being literate in the old sense of the word. A literate person was one who could read and write (long ago this meant a little bit of both) and these days the expectation is that this will be to a high level. It was the purpose of schooling to make people literate and that of tertiary education to make people elegantly literate.

Clearly “literate” and “literacy ” these days simply mean being able to do something, or know about it, or to have learned the appropriate behaviours.

It is a simple truth that literate people, genuinely literate, have the tools to be good at all those other things without too much initiation into the secret societies of managing money, working a computer, getting along with others and seeing through the media.  If our education system was turning out literate people across the board, because it clearly does this with many young people, it would not be necessary to add the complications of all those spin-off varieties.

Of course each new literacy that comes along creates another area of specialism that protects the turf – and this might be one of the very strong tendency to see each area of knowledge and activity as a “literacy”.

Those who can read, write and be articulate can tackle most things. For a period of my life I had a block of land that had sheep on it, bred ducks, had an orchard, grew flowers and vegetables and all the other trappings of “the good life”.  My neighbour would laugh at me saying “You are always reading a book to find out how to do something.”  He never understood the pleasure that this observation brought to me – of course I would do this, a literate person uses the tools of their literacy to acquire further knowledge.

And there’s the rub. As access to tertiary education expands for a variety of reasons there is  growing evidence that increasing numbers of students are arriving in the academy ill-prepared for the tasks that face them. This is not to say that they are illiterate (seemingly also a kind of literacy) but that they have not developed the skills of literacy to a point where they meet the demands of study at a university level.

So tertiary institutions have to accept the fact they they are increasingly in the business of literacy and get on with deciding how this is going to be tackled. Early responses saw the establishment of “Learning Centres” and “Academic Assistance” programmes but these carry with them the issue of relating what is being taught to what needs to be learnt. The best of such approaches are adequate but no substitute for delivering elements of literacy development right inside the programmes being taught in the various disciplines.  Embedded literacy is the current, favoured approach.

This is not a new idea – remember the language across the curriculum approaches developed in the 1960s?  That spawned a whole lot of English for Academic Uses and “English for …….” books and programmes.  Some of these may have worked but you can’t cope with issues that have become mainstream by clipping stuff on at the edges.

And to make this whole language thing even more of a challenge – the changing ethnicities of the demographics and the exponential increase in the presence of international students in classrooms meant that students introduced all the issues of English as an Additional Language into the mix.  And “bi-literacy” became yet another kind to consider – being literate in two languages.  This is actually a bit of nonsense – to a very large extent being literate in one language transfers to the skills of literacy in another, provided that the other language has a presence in the teaching setting.

Students seeking to understand a second language continually ask of themselves the question “In what ways is this new language the same as or different from the language I already know?”  Having teachers and tutors who have facility in the home languages students bring into the classroom helps with this.  You do not learn English as a Second Language by ignoring the first language!  We are very slow to recognise this and it is as much an issue for tertiary as it is for the schooling sector.

There has long been a saying among linguists – “If you speak many languages you are multilingual, if you speak two languages you are bilingual, if you speak one language you are English.”  Issues of multiple language do seem to trouble the Anglo-Saxon education systems rather more than they do to others.

Vygotsky put it nicely – “thought is not merely expressed in words but come into being through them.”  If our education institutions are in the business of increasing the capacity to think then they have to accept that they are in the business of language development – at all levels and across all disciplines.



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