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Tag: connection

EDTalkNZ: Joining Some Dots

 Today’s guest writer is Karl Mutch, Manager, Team Solutions, at The University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education.

When I was a young boy in the 1960s, a long time before computer games and even before space invaders, there used to be things called puzzle books which children would inevitably receive as Christmas or birthday presents. These books, usually an inch thick and printed on poor quality paper, were useful for amusing ourselves on a wet weekend or in the winter school holidays. They contained pictures you could colour in, quizzes, crosswords, lists of interesting facts and, my favourite, join the dots. Using a pencil, you would begin to join up the hundreds of apparently random dots on a page until some kind of shape emerged – if I remember correctly it was usually an elephant, a cute dog, a palm tree or a clown. The easier join the dot pages even had some of the picture already provided so you kind of knew what was coming. Even if you could anticipate the final image, there was something satisfying about completing the picture, joining up all the dots and seeing everything connected.

What would it look like if we could join up some of the dots to help connect schools more strongly with our communities? What would a truly community connected school look like, and feel like – for students, for teachers, for school leaders and for members of the community? What sort of picture might emerge?

A couple of months ago I sat in the main auditorium at the Telstra Clear Events Centre in Manukau with over 200 people who were asking a similar question. What was exciting about this was not just the name – Raise Pasifika Fono – but the fact that it was a rare attempt to connect the education dots across a large and diverse community – to improve outcomes for Pacific students. There were specialist groups – students, early childhood, primary and secondary teachers, principals, tertiary educators, government ministry people, business people, church representatives, some MPs, union representatives, health sector representatives, counsellors, local community members, parents and people from local government. At times, we talked within our specialist groups, at times we re-grouped to engage with a range of perspectives. For a moment, it felt like a whole community coming together to talk about education connections and how these might be aligned to benefit students.

Of course there are already numerous examples of schools, kura and communities working together to benefit students – iwi have created and are implementing education plans and exploring education partnerships; parents are involved in school reading and homework programmes; businesses and sports clubs provide mentoring, work experience or sponsorship. Local councils have community development programmes and community trusts fund a wide range of school-connected projects. There are youth workers in schools and programmes that connect schools with artists and scientists. Trades academies allow secondary schools to engage in new ways with employers and tertiary institutes. Somewhere amongst all of this is the potential for more coherence in how schools and communities connect – perhaps across a suburb, town or region – and I haven’t even touched on the potential of virtual communities to revolutionize the ways schools ‘connect’.

Government can play a role. There are increasing connections between iwi and the Ministry of Education through iwi education partnerships. This week, Child, Youth and Family has established a direct hotline for teachers to help encourage reporting of suspected child abuse. Although there are worries there may not be enough staff at CYF to follow up those concerns effectively, it is at least an example of a direct connection between schools and a government agency that could make a difference for children. Why wasn’t it done years ago? What other hotlines do we need?

How can local government increasingly play a role here? It could start by providing more infrastructure for agencies and organisations to make connections. This would ensure that agencies intersecting and participating in education would know who was playing what role or delivering which services. It would allow the community to access the information they need in a timely way. In Auckland, the Education Summit held earlier this year was an attempt to kick start that process.

I know that community means different things to different people, but exploring ways for schools to connect in increasingly innovative and coherent ways with their communities seems like a really important job. What sort of picture, what sort of vision, might emerge if we actually start joining up more of those dots?

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Talk-ED: Our Canterbury Tales

Stuart Middleton
28 March 2011

Any parent with young children knows of that suspicion that all might not be well when the children go quiet and the sound of play, the squabble and just of general activity cannot be heard. It’s a bit like that in education in New Zealand at the moment.

I think it is very much to do with the post-earthquakes period where the successive and overwhelming tragedies of the shocks in Christchurch and the earthquake / tsunami double tragedy in Japan have been numbing to everyone to a degree relative to the personal impact. All this has happened relatively quickly on the heels of the Australian floods. It’s been a huge amount happening in a short span of time in our little slice of the world.

What happens is that for a time everything else, the old daily grizzles, the ongoing issues, the standard stand-offs, all seem rather unimportant. In fact, there is almost an element of bad taste when the media leave these tragedies behind and return to their same old themes – they all ring a little bit hollow.

Education was affected considerably. Some schools in Canterbury have been destroyed, many damaged and most disrupted. Rebuilding all of this is a huge task for government agencies and communities. In more normal circumstances a rebuild of this magnitude would have been an opportunity to have a think about the shape of compulsory education – are the schools in the right places, of the right configuration and articulating in the best way. Just as once the intermediate school emerged as a solution right for an issue of the day, so too might the junior high school, the senior / community college or some form of transfer institution and other innovations might have been appropriate. But the imperative will probably be to restore to each community that which was there before the events of September 2010 and February 2011.

It is reported in the media that the University of Canterbury has lost around 400 students who have not returned to the university and have not enrolled elsewhere. This is a serious disruption to the lives of those young people but they too have other things on their minds at this time. I wonder how many students from Christchurch have not returned but have enrolled elsewhere? Whatever the number the University of Canterbury has some remarkable issues to deal with as it gets back into business with some classes in marquees while buildings are checked and restored to a safe condition. Institutions take a real hit when something of this magnitude happens.

Other institutions are also coping with the huge return to something resembling normal activity. But in amongst it all some good responses have emerged. Primary students in some numbers have been absorbed into other schools that have capacity. For many this will be looked back on something of an adventure at a time when families were disrupted. The dual use of secondary school sites by different schools was new to this country – might this lead to something that could be used permanently as the senior secondary school becomes more flexible?

Acts of kindness have brought to the fore a generosity of spirit within education – institutions elsewhere hosting groups or programmes or even individual students. It is not as easy as it sounds to transplant an activity or a student into another setting and it requires great effort on both sides. It would be good if all this was being documented to remind us of what can be done and perhaps even without the impetus brought by tragic events.

But to return to where we started – the children do seem rather quiet.

Is this the longest period of time we have gone without an NCEA story, the usual tale of trivial importance treated by the media with an ersatz gravitas? Where were the annual start-of-year stories about the incredible pressure universities were under as enrolment numbers reached unprecedented levels?  Why no stories about the terrible cost of school uniforms, the outrageous demands for school donations and the increased traffic as schools and tertiary institutions got under way? Major pay settlements for secondary principals and secondary teachers passed us by with cursory treatment.

Why? Because those stories don’t matter. What matters is the fact that a majority of students in New Zealand go to school and other education institutions each day supported by their parents and caregivers, do what they are told and what they love doing and yet, due to the might of natural forces, they were unable to do so in unprecedented numbers. That was perhaps the education story of a hundred years.

But it didn’t take long before the media moved on or was it back? Page after page on school bullying and violence. It matters but somehow it seems to be simply bad taste when there must be stories about the recovery of schooling in Canterbury that deserve to be told.

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PathwayEd: Flexible Swedish pathways

Stuart Middleton
3 March 2011

It is very cold in Sweden which I imagine gives them a lot of time for thinking. So it was with some anticipation this week that I met with some Swedish visitors who were passing through on an educational tour. Here was a chance to learn from Scandinavian educators. Finland beats us in the PISA World Series, Scandinavia is held up as a set of countries to emulate, and any country that can give us the Nobel prizes, the celsius scale and ABBA must have something to offer. Scandinavia is often held up to us as an example to be emulated.

The Swedish group worked in a “vocational” senior college. After nine years of schooling (they start a year later than us) students can make choices about which kind of course they follow – one that takes them to the university or one which prepares them for work. But the interesting feature of this is that they do not make the split one which says academic that way and vocational over here. The students who are working towards the construction industry or the hair and beauty trade also continue their academic development in the core subjects of language and mathematics so as to make possible a shift to the conventional university at any point either while they are moving through their senior college or at some later time.

So what are they doing that enables them to maintain this flexibility of pathways for students rather than the restricted options of the New Zealand system where life chances are so comprehensively defined by early success or failure in school?

Well, one thing could be their attitude towards language. If a student arrives in a Swedish educational institution and comes from a language background other than Swedish, that educational institution is obliged by law to provide a teacher or support person who is a mother tongue speaker of that language to provide assistance. Rather than pack the NSSB (non-Swedish speaking background) student off somewhere else for instruction in Swedish or simply immerse them in this new and foreign language, a NSSB student continues to learn in their home language while developing skill in their new language. This is exceedingly enlightened. They acknowledge that this can be challenging at times but no slack is cut on this for them.

The only way a student can develop skill in a new language is to continually develop in their first language. In New Zealand our mainstream schools are cold turkey schools by and large. “English Spoken Here”, the sign that excites so many British tourists, is the prevailing approach. I wonder if we will ever realise that patterns of achievement for Maori students were driven downwards by our not recognising the importance of the mother tongue. I wonder why we are insisting that the same thing must happen to Pacific Island learners.

Another thing is that critical decisions made at age 14 about the nature of the educational programme to be followed from that point on. That age, 14 years, consistently emerges as the age at which systems that are not characterised by disengagement and the NEET phenomenon offer to students a range of pathways along which they can travel to a future characterised by success, employment and a self-sustaining life. It seems to be the point where to carry on with education that is without a clear purpose (other than the esoteric and ethereal glow of lifelong learning) is putting a group of students at risk.    

But in Sweden they are used to much greater intervention in the community and the economy by the government. Education is centrally and closely regulated and schools have to march in time to this environment. There is the closer scrutiny of the system that comes from local government. Would we have a tolerance for this after 21 years of permissive, if not promiscuous, self governing institutions?

The other area that interested me is that of attendance. Even in post-secondary schools, the institutions are simply held accountable for attendance and are required to respond immediately on the first day of absence (“immediately” they said in unison) by mobile phone, visits, contact with parents and so on. They felt that the devolution of responsibility for truancy and absences to truancy services was a quaint approach to take. I was impressed by the determined commitment of the Principal of a post-secondary institution

And on the issue of educational failure they were adamant – the institution was held accountable and it seemed that there were some financial incentives to see that students had success (for that read that they lost money when students failed I guess).

It’s easy to spend time with visitors from far away glamorous places and be impressed but I was left with a feeling that we could learn quite a lot from them.

Some final points.

They had come to New Zealand to learn from us acknowledging that we teach successful students as well as anyone in the world and had met wonderful teachers, principals and students in schools that they thought were great.

I asked: What does Finland do to beat both Sweden and New Zealand in the PISA Grand Final and the answer surprised me. Finland has, according to these Swedish neighbours, a very homogenous community – they don’t admit immigrants in any great number and it is too cold for the migrant workers that challenge many of the European systems. Finland also has few NFSB (Non-Finnish Speaking Background) people and when immigrants are allowed to settle they are pepper-potted throughout the community and so avoid having only some schools to carry all the hard work of disadvantaged communities.

Oh well, there have to be some secrets in the long dark Nordic nights

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Missed Connections

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.18, 15 May 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

 “Only connect!”  is the running message in E M Forster’s novel Howards End and it is an exhortation to bring together the disparate parts of life so as to get balance and, in the long term, a better result. There is a message here for us in education. If we were to seek increased opportunity to increase connection with, between and for students the benefits to students would be immense.

“Only connect!”  One of the key roles that Early Childhood Education plays is to provide a benign and empowering introduction to the education system for parent and child. Opportunities for many in those sections of the community that are likely to benefit most in this way continue to elude us. We miss an opportunity here to get connection with parts of our community that education serves less well.

“Only connect!”  Then there is the question of the sectors that I raised a couple of weeks ago. By breaking education up into these disparate and partitioned pieces we place the onus for achieving connection on the students and his or her parent rather than presenting a smooth and easy road along which they can travel. Students (and their parents) have a lot of other things to concentrate on without also having to be responsible for navigation. They need to concentrate on getting there, having the right preparation and support, making sound choices, staying the distance and achieving success without becoming distracted by a map that seems to bear little resemblance to their lives.

“Only connect!”  And within the sectors there are issues related to the changing of classes and teachers and the different demands of different levels. We know why we do things this way or at least we can rationalise it all but how easy is it for our community to grasp? Does something that seems to them to be simple – learning new and different things – require us to approach it in such a complex and at times convoluted manner?

“Only connect!”  the education world in general has now realised that a major issue exists at the end of secondary education (whenever that comes for a student) where the interface between schools and whatever is to follow is arguably the most difficult set of rapids for students and those who care for them to attempt.

The water rushes them ahead at this point, around, over and sometimes into the rocks of pathway choices, subject choices, career and vocational choices, and choices of institutions and providers. The work that is happening in some schools now to slow down the waters by starting the processes of decision making much earlier holds much promise and should be supported, Similarly the return to a more orderly education system at this level through a network of provision in which universities behave like universities and polytechnics behave like polytechnics will also help.

But perhaps the key connections will be the ones which education professionals make with each other. If education were an ecosystem then survival would depend on our becoming smart at seeing the symbiotic relationship between the parts rather than our simply relishing our spot in the food chain.

The rapacious decade of the 1990’s where students were there to be fought for, in which we all ate each others’ lunches, in which big was beautiful and bigger was more beautiful  took us nowhere and will increasingly be seen as time lost. This was time when we could have been tooling up an education system for what lies ahead rather than shoring up the system to make the most of what has always been.

The growth of our education system has been accidental rather than planned – there was no educational Mt Sinai from which tablets of stone were delivered to us saying this is how it shall be now and for evermore. Despite the tone of various reports over the years, attempts to change the system were attempts to bring some order to a system not built to a plan. The ark of the educational covenant when it is found will be found to be empty.

What was planned was that communities such as ours (and Australia, US, UK and Canada) would have universal primary (elementary, basic) education and a few would proceed to the conventional higher education academy for which a pipeline, secondary education, was required to deliver those few. At the end of primary education pathways would take students into the world of work or into the fee paying secondary schools that led on and up to the academy.

The growth of other options was slow as the British tradition of seeing anything other than a literary education as being inferior, influenced decisions. But other options did emerge and became an imperative after the Second World War when the group of five launched on a track of universal five year secondary education for a variety of reasons. Even the structures within which was tackled were rather haphazard. Junior high schools came but went nowhere, intermediate schools became a quick fix for population growth issues, single sex schools went out of fashion. We are now seeing the emergence of junior and secondary high schools again. All of this by and large took place and takes place without much discussion – it is a series of little bangs rather than intelligent design!

But the most random aspect of education and what could well become the most important lost opportunity for connection is the curriculum. Successive reviews have seen the curriculum feed on itself rather than the needs of the community and the economy. I can’t remember a review that has had the courage to conduct a real stock take of where we are and what we need, not even the orgy of consultation that characterised the Wellington (as in Merv) and Lockwood Smith reviews.

The current NZ Curriculum is a mighty fine document that schools can get their teeth into but will it promote connection? In other words is it an internal document for an in-house discussion or is it the document that will look outwards and tackle the issue of connection? It does mention that a target is to develop learners to be connected but to what?

“Only connect!”  – that is a challenge.

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Tear down the wall

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.11, 27 March 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall….[1]

I wonder from time to time whether the notion of sectors has outlived its usefulness. It seems to me that the walls we place in the way of young students have become something of a series of barriers. I wonder whether the walls that divide the sectors serve a real purpose that is related to the progress of students. Or are they an historical anachronism?

From time to time the landscape would send shivers that challenged the walls. There is a developing debate about the location of early childhood services. Intermediate schools grew in response to the demographic earthquake after the Second World War sprouting from the ruins of the Junior High School experiment that never went anywhere. Various reforms attempt to dislodge the rocks. We have several integrated campuses that bring primary and secondary together. We are developing Junior High Schools and Senior High Schools. Much attention is starting to be paid to the transition from secondary to postsecondary.  But this all happens in the absence of any debate about sectors. If gaps occur we find new and ingenious ways to plug them.

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast….

Refoms and various developments do not, it seems, challenge what we do to any great extent. Largely because, just like the two farmers in the poem, we carefully replace any fallen rock.

And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go…..

Reports, commissions, even the royal ones, tend to confirm the status quo and as steady as the farmers, set the rocks back in place again. When issues of pay parity were being argued there was strong support for a view that said that distinctions between the sectors were to some extent spurious. But when it comes to teaching and learning, to school organisation, to the organisation of teaching labour there is no debate. We simply assume that because it has always been thus, it should always be so.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.

There is a need for us to have a discussion about why sectors should have the hard edges around them. Could it be that the best location for early childhood services really is inside a primary setting? And what logic deems that children should go away for a particular Christmas holiday to return to education as something else. Could it be that some students should move earlier and others later? And why are some Christmas holidays more important than others.

What is it that demands the walls? We sometimes hear the comforting clichés such as “We’re teaching children they teach subjects!” Would that we did both in all sectors! Is there a curriculum justification for the placement of the walls? Is it based on some understanding of how learning occurs? Is it related to social development? Physical development? Why this obsession with grouping students in age cohorts? What are we protecting here?

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

And this is the crux of the matter. We are busily working on a new curriculum for schools and this presents an opportunity to ask how the lack of seamlessness in the organisation of education contributes to the development of lifelong learners who are connected.

An education system with many flexible opportunities but without barriers is not a new idea. “The Minister of Education is currently working with the education community to design a way of resourcing this seamless education system to allow these educational opportunities to flourish and to build an education system for the twenty-first century. Education must provide strong foundations, and a wide range of opportunities thereafter, to meet the diverse needs of all New Zealanders. The education system must be without barriers to participation and life-long learning.”[2] The Minister was Dr Lockwood Smith, the year was 1993, the government was a National government.

The farmers continue until the wall is once again strong and the one that wonders about walls make little progress with his neighbour who has been brought up to believe in certain things.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down…..’
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

[1] Mending Wall  Robert Frost
[2] Ministry of Education (1993) Education for the 21st Century, Wellington. 

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