Over the last few months, I have been incredibly privileged and lucky to witness first-hand the education systems in NZ, China, America and Australia. It is always enlightening to experience how education is perceived and manifested in other countries as it highlights parts of what we do that are hidden from us in "plain sight" - because we see it every day, we take it for granted that it is the norm for all.
A responsibility that weighs heavily on me through all of these opportunities is a term that Jim Collins has coined as “Return on Luck and Opportunities” (Great by Choice.) In its purest form, this concept accepts that everyone has good luck and bad luck - things that go their way and things that don't. The critical difference between organisations that rise above those around them is how successfully they use lucky breaks and opportunities to propel them forward, and how successfully they minimise the unlucky breaks to hamper momentum.
For me, these experiences spotlight elements of what a growing number of schools in NZ, Australia and America are doing to rethink the possibilities of education. These are schools and communities who are no longer OK with doing school the way it was designed following the second world war (the vast majority of these 60-year-old ways of thinking about education and society remain unchanged in many classes and schools around the world today.) We know these changes make a difference, but experiencing schools not thinking about or doing some of these things helps to deepen our understanding of their impact and importance.
So what are the main things that stand out the most for me as hiding in plain sight as I contrast these different experiences?
The first area that stands out most clearly for me is the engagement of students and the contrasting ways that schools work with students. Engagement is a word that is overused and widely misunderstood. Educational researchers break engagement into three separate strands - behavioural, cognitive and emotional.
This shift does not mean that behavioural engagement is not essential, but it is not enough, particularly as children move into middle school and high school. The compliance that comes with well behaved younger children erodes with teenage hormones and the cumulation of years of being compliantly bored! We have been noticing the impact on valuing the whole child within our school to ramp up cognitive and emotional engagement - finding ways to use their interests, gender, values, experiences, culture etc. as vehicles to develop the skills, knowledge, attitudes needed for success in learning to entice more emotional and cognitive engagement. This is something at Leamington I think we take for granted as being the norm. In these other countries, and also in many schools in NZ, the emphasis is on teaching reading and maths from the moment the children start school with little or no regard to using their interests, curiosity, experiences, family values as tools to help teach these essential skills. Experiencing schools where this inclusive nature is not deemed as critical for engaging learners contrasts how crucial it is, and how much emphasis we must place on ensuring it stays at the forefront and be further advanced.
The second is how much value we place on partnering with families in the education process. I have assumed that all teachers and schools strive to partner with families, valuing their perspectives and culture. While in America, Australia and NZ this is undoubtedly a shared, espoused value. However the expectation of the depth and benefits this partnering brings to the education process varies widely. I was surprised at how schools were satisfied with gaining a 10% response rate from their community, how low their expectations were for parents to support their children in student-led conferences or parent/teacher meetings etc. In contrast, anything smaller than a 70% response rate at Leamington we consider to be a poor turnout. (Some might believe this to be an inadequate response.)
This expectation of partnering comes at a cost with ever increasing complexity - particularly with a larger school community and a more extensive range of views to place into the mix. Additional to the complexity is the changing generational expectations of parents of what a quality educational experience is, and how this differs from their children and those of younger parents. Generally speaking, parents whose youngest children are about to leave the primary sector have different life experiences and views about what comprises quality educational experiences, teaching, engagement, technology use and partnering than those whose eldest children are in the earlier stages of primary schooling (Levy and Murnane, Harvard University, 2013.) The absence, or lack of genuinely valuing the partnership and how that benefits the learner stood out as a contrast. Again, it is something that I knew was important, but it has been highlighted how essential it is to maintain and deepen.
The last area that stood out for me, hiding in plain sight, was the importance and urgency of a developing the skills, knowledge, attitudes, values needed for our children to equip them for a world and workforce that is going to experience relentless evolution and revolution. This is a theme I would like to explore in more depth in a subsequent blog post.