Sunday, August 28, 2011

Afterschool classes

The Maths Dept runs four after school classes, two on Monday and two on Tuesday.  All classes are optional.  Students come that need help in particular topics, split by 9/10 and 11/12.  The senior school classes typically are seeking consolidation and the 9/10 class is typically those seeking extension.

Many afterschool classes are now becoming compulsory, especially at the end of the year.  I wish teachers wouldn't do this.  School is a complex organism and when you take freedom away, students are forced to make ill advised decisions.

This week I had to speak for students with excessive afterschool comittments, students that had options subjects in year 12 encroaching on class time (I doubt whether the student would appreciate my help either) and in study time.  I try and be supportive of options teachers and allow students to participate in extracurricular requirements but... stage 3 students in year 12 should be quarantined from them in the weeks leading to mock exams.   I'll be hard pressed to accept any argument that tries to say otherwise no matter how talented they are (or untalented in maths for that matter).

My thinking is this.   Students get into university based on an ATAR score or through portfolio entry.  Options subjects (at least at our school) are 2A or below in year 12.  Thus they are supporting cast when calculating an ATAR score.  3A scores are not, even low ones.  If we had stage 3 students in non MESS subjects that weren't scaled to useless, my position would be far different.

The argument that students will lose enthusiasm if not allowed to participate does not hold water either.  As a teaching body, it is our job to work with teachers to make sure these predictable situations do not occur.  It was a questionable teaching decision that put students there in the first place.

A student should participate because "they are helping market the school" is not acceptable either.  Year 12 mock exams are the culmination of 12 years study.  To jeopardise this by moving focus away from study lacks a little foresight and is not in the best interest of the student.

Don't think that I don't admire the option class teachers.  They are passionate about their subjects and passionate groups (even us maths dinos are passionate about our subject) will strive for what they think is right.  I'd rather have passionate groups striving for excellence than rampant apathy.   If people weren't discussing matters and pushing envelopes I'd be more concerned.  There are times where students can only continue in the academic subjects because they can vent using emotional and physical outlets.

MESS subjects do stupid things too.  We shouldn't be loading the end of the year with excessive assessment.  Identifying areas of weakness two weeks before exams is probably too late and of minimum benefit.  The words appropriate levels of study and revision need to be in the forefront of our teaching minds.  Student anxiety levels need to be kept at appropriate levels.

Coming back to the original point, this is why mathematics afterschool classes that I run are optional.  Students can choose whether they need the help or are in a position to enjoy extension.  They can prioritise their learning and optimise their potential.  Forcing a student to do something at this stage of the year is only creating a problem somewhere else.  Being able to make a decision is an important part of growing up, as is ensuring safeguards are in place when lack of maturity jeopardises their potential.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Responsible learning

There are many ways to motivate students to learn.  A common way is to provide extrinsic reward - "the bribery model".  This is a technique that is especially effective to provide short term performance gains, especially where the skill is not particularly exciting.  As the name suggests, its underlying value system is "I do something, I get something".  Immediacy is important as proximity to the reward  maximises the effect.  It is very now in its approach and is appropriate in many cases to kick start a learning programme.

A second model is an intrinsic goal oriented model, "education as a pathway".  It is the typical education model used by parents for the past 1000 years.  Be educated, have a future.  It is longer term and has elements of risk/reward.  Implicitly it has delayed gratification built in.

Where students do not value the goal oriented model and only work to instant gratification, the ability to maintain motivation fails.   The wall is hit earlier by students in an education lifecycle and the ability to be determined and seek excellence/success is greatly reduced whilst apathy or resistance to education grows.  Lacking resilience, the student is unable to bounce back fast enough after failure (a real issue caused by the no fail model at least until primary, if not middle school) and we produce students unable to cope with reality or that rebel not understanding options before them.

Part of the downfall of the intrinsic goal oriented model in WA is the failure to provide honest feedback regarding performance and the lack of effective career counselling (career structures have changed significantly in the past 15 years and schools lag this change).  Students are not aware of the possibilities in front of them and the consequences of their actions regarding learning in lower secondary.  Where all students pass, school graduation is not an indicator of an employable future.  Graduation becomes a hurdle rather than an enabler to access to the workforce.  Furthermore, the reduction in streaming takes away an important success indicator to students of their pathway towards employment and thus conceptually to their developing a concept of self (contrary to many views on streaming).

Discipline and setting clear behaviour boundaries (not just expectations) are safeguards to the success of the goal oriented model.  These are also being challenged by the incremental approach to discipline.   Students never reach boundaries thus have diminished ability to cope with limits.

To strengthen the goal oriented model we need to develop a range of appropriate pathways and more accurate indicators for students that they are on a pathway to a successful future.  National curriculum may provide some of the solutions together with positioning vocational studies properly within a school; strong leadership within schools, the department and universities need to provide the remainder.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Independent Public Schools

Now that the majority of government schools are either independent or becoming independent public schools, the rush is on for schools to examine their current practices as restricted by the department and seek ways to differentiate from nearby schools.

I welcome some things about independent public schools.  Without school boundaries, schools will live or die by their academic reputation.  This requires a broad strategy to ensure that students are enticed to each school.  NAPLAN scores, school reputation in the community and reputation with nearby primary schools will form a part of the drive of students towards a school.

Staffing will be a key issue moving forward as schools need to examine both their entry processes and how they wish their organisations to evolve.  The need for stability with driven, dependable, clever and caring staff will test the ability of schools to evolve into independent entities.  Promotional opportunities and the introduction of fresh staff with fresh ideas will be a key change issue in managing staff and developing the organisation.

It will be interesting to see how schools focus on both the long and short term requirements of keeping public schools as going concerns.  Schools that do not take a business approach to education may find that a superior academic programme is overshadowed by a lack of marketing ability.  Gloss and glitter, marketing tricks, making known extra curricular activities and wearing out shoe leather going to feeder schools may be required until parity is regained with the private sector.

I also wonder if short term focus on marketing will overshadow curriculum initiatives.  Ultimately short term tricks will not undo the damage done to education in the public sector through underfunding, mismanagement and poor curriculum direction.  Schools need to look to core business and identify how to raise education standards beyond that found in private schools.  Here again leadership will play a critical component in examining initiatives, encouraging successful attempts and marketing these successfully. Contrariwise unsuccessful initiatives will need to be redirected or discontinued.  Spending will need to be carefully evaluated in a way often ignored within schooling - often to the complete dismay and astonishment of observers from outside the system.

Do we need independent public schools?  Probably not... but we do require change and schools that can make the best of the opportunities have potential to benefit.  Now that the idea has had time to bed down, hopefully (fingers crossed) those that enter in the second and third rounds will not have too many transitory issues.