Opening up thinking about education today for tomorrow - Imagining possibilities and solutions

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Looking for opportunities: Systemic reform, system learning? (Part 2)

This isn’t the Part 2 I had intended – but I thought that it is an example of how the system may actually be getting in the way of improvement and transformation.

Yesterday I picked up a series of Tweets from Greg Whitby about a recent policy talk from NSW opposition leader, Barry O’Farrell on proposed education policy. It had all the usual suspects:

  • Real choice for parents
  • Flexible system
  • Evidence-based policy reporting

And light on detail.

The identified policy problem was that there is

“one in five Year 9 students at or below the minimum [Australian National] standards in reading, writing and maths; it’s time to change our approach towards literacy and numeracy.”

More of the same. So what have we learnt?

The proposed O’Farrell plan for NSW focuses on investing in early intervention in literacy and numeracy and commitment to ensuring

“children develop the foundations for success in literacy and numeracy at an early age.”

No one can really disagree with this. It’s common-sense. And it's been a focus for improvement for nearly two decades now. (see Hill and Crévola (1997); Fullan, Hill and Crévola (2006); Fullan and Sharratt (2010)).

The proposed policy solutions appear to be about doing more of the same: providing more intervention teachers, more accountability, more measuring, national and international comparisons.

An old model, no structural change.

There is also an assumption that a focus on the early years and establishing strong foundations will solve the literacy and numeracy issues in later years.

How does this thinking contribute to the student learning outcomes we have? Where is the learning for the system? How have policy-makers, politicians and political cycles contributed to the educational outcomes we have? What have we learnt?

Are we asking the right questions?

At the school level we have come to understand what makes a difference to student learning:

  1. Teachers do make a difference. Some things make a bigger difference - use of data, feedback, explicit teaching (Hattie (2009), Visible Learning; Steve Dinham (2009), How to get your school moving and improving).
  2. Particular approaches to professional learning that are focused on student learning outcomes, teacher inquiry and knowledge building (Timperley (2009), Teacher Professional Learning and Development).
  3. Particular actions of leadership focused on student learning (Robinson (2009), School Leadership and Student Outcomes: Identifying what works and why).

I have started to frame questions around these understandings.

  • What is it about my teaching that leads to those student outcomes?
  • What is it I do as a leader that leads to those student outcomes?
  • What can I change in my teaching and leadership to achieve better outcomes and opportunities for students?

I use these questions when working with schools to open up reflection, thinking, analysis of practice and conversations about learning.

The same questions I think can be asked at higher levels:

  • What is it I do in my work with schools that contributes to those student outcomes?
  • What is it I have done as a policy maker that contributes to those student outcomes?

New thinking for new solutions

Doing more of the same, but more intensely, won’t address the issues of improving learning for all students; nor will it create the solutions we need.

Part of the problem is partisan politics within short-term political cycles. There has been very little inquiry into how policy-makers and politicians contribute to "one in five Year 9 students at or below the minimum [Australian National] standards in reading, writing and maths."

The complexity of the issues that face schools in the first decades of the 21st Century requires long-term solutions focused on deeper change. There needs to be a stronger focus on learning across the system - learning for students, teachers, school leaders, educational bureaucracy leaders and administrators, parents, policy-makers, politicians, and researchers.

The answer has to be deep engagement with other colleagues and with mentors in 
exploring, refining, and improving their practice as well as setting up an environment in 
which this not only can happen but is encouraged, rewarded, and pressed to happen.’ 
(Fullan, M. 2006: 57, Turnaround Leadership.)

Shouldn’t policy create those conditions that are necessary for the educational professionals to engage in inquiry, innovation, development and research that is focused on improving outcomes and opportunities for all students?


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