Education Wellbeing

An alternate three Rs for the 21st century?

While the traditional three Rs (reading, writing & arithmetic) were only aimed at the students, these alternate three Rs would serve as an operating system for the whole learning community; students, staff, parents and the wider community.

Relationships – Humans are social beings and as such positive relationships are key to human flourishing. As well as nurturing the skills to develop positive inter-personal relationships, we also need to see the relationship between who we are, what we do, the impact of our actions and how we react emotionally. To be able to do this, we need to be given the opportunity to reflect.

Reflection – We are living in the most stimulating time in history. Having hundreds of TV channels to choose from, social media updates to keep on top of, smartphones buzzing in our pockets we have become enslaved to the technology. We feel guilty if we have any spare time on our hands and as such, we find something to do… like updating your Facebook status to say “just chilling out on the beach.” We have created a world in which we see little value in reflecting on the What, Why and How of our experiences. Maybe that’s why it’s easy to say, “Nothin” when asked, “What did you do at school today?”

Resilience – The World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030 depression will be the largest cause of illness in the Western World. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity and serves as a protective factor against depression. It has become something of a buzzword at the moment in education. Whilst schools do a good job of promoting physical health (PE/health classes, healthy canteens, no-smoking and OH&S policies etc) I believe schools need to be more proactive in nurturing the mental health of their learning community.

To what extent does, could or should your school/organisation value these alternate three Rs?

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Education Leadership Media

Testing Times for NAPLAN

For the benefit of my overseas readers, all Australian school students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 are assessed using national tests in Reading, Writing, Language Conventions (Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation) and Numeracy.

These are known as NAPLAN tests. They are the equivalent to the SATs in the UK or the NEAPs in the US.

Every year standardised tests come under the microscope. Everyone with an opinion (educated or otherwise) throws in their two cents…

So here’s mine (you can decide whether it’s educated or otherwise.)

In the last couple of weeks, with regard to NAPLAN, the media has been awash with allegations of teachers cheating, parents refusing to allow their kids to take the test, and principals selecting new enrolments based on NAPLAN scores.

With stories like this it’s not surprising that anyone who wanted to condemn NAPLAN got their obligatory 3 minute soundbite onto Morning TV. Bold statements like “NAPLAN harms our kids for life” at breakfast time, make for essential viewing for the mums and dads of every 8 – 14 year old in the country!

But here’s the thing…

Standardised tests do have a role to play in today’s education. They can serve as a diagnostic tool to highlight areas in a child’s learning that may need attention – indeed that is the purpose NAPLAN was intended to serve.

On the NAPLAN website it says:

  • Students and parents may use individual results to discuss achievements and progress with teachers.
  • Teachers use results to help them better identify students who require greater challenges or additional support.
  • Schools use results to identify strengths and weaknesses in teaching programs and to set goals in literacy and numeracy.
  • School systems use results to review programs and support offered to schools.

The tests themselves are not the problem.

The issues such as those reported in the media this week arise because the data is abused by people who should know better.

The problems associated with standardised tests are due to the seemingly innate human desire to compare oneself (or children) to others.

This has been exacerbated by the fact that the governments MySchool website uses NAPLAN results as its main source of comparison data.

In early 2010, Prime Minister, Julia Gillard whilst still Education Minister stated, “Before MySchool, parents would do everything they could to find out as much information as possible about the schools in their suburb – maybe they’ve moved suburb, moved cities, moved states, want to know which is the school that their child should go to and that’s been a hard battle for them to get the information. Now, as one source of information they will be able to get on MySchool and see more comprehensive information than they’ve ever had access to before.”

As soon as we have a notion of choice – we get competition between the potential choices (in this case, schools) and in every competition in the world – there is cheating and corruption. So should the stories in the media these last two weeks be surprising? I don’t think so.

This has the potential to get much worse with Ms Gillard’s government announcing at its budget this month, their intention to introduce incentive based pay for teachers.

You guessed it – NAPLAN test scores would be part of the assessment criteria!

So, stay with me here…  scores from a test – that we are told, you cannot teach to or prepare for – will form the basis of whether or not a teacher nets an extra $8000 a year or not…

If NAPLAN wasn’t high stakes before… it certainly will be now – for the teacher at least! Never mind the raft of research that tells us performance related pay actually DECREASES performance! (But that’s another blog post yet to come…)

As well as principals keen to ensure that their schools league ranking doesn’t slip on their watch, individual teachers will have the thought of an extra $8000 in their mind when it comes to planning the next week’s work.

In the quest to net the extra cash, what will be the first to go from the child’s learning experience? Art, Music, Drama, PE? Perhaps creative writing will be pushed the side so classes can work from books that look to maximise your NAPLAN performance.

But that’s all to come… back to the issues of the day.

Principals and teachers have to be the leaders in the education revolution. They have to stand up for what is right and spell out to the politicians and misguided masses, what is blatantly wrong about using these standardised tests in a way they were never intended.

The media will report whatever makes the headlines that day… so whilst one day they’ll be condemning NAPLAN, you can be assured that in a month or two, the same outlets will be publishing league tables or promoting the idea of Performance Related Pay based on NAPLAN data.

As I said before. I have no problems with standardised tests per se; but the way in which we use them is fundamentally flawed.

If a principal uses NAPLAN test scores as a means to select students into their school (and for the record – I don’t believe there is a single principal in the country that would only use test scores to do this) then the sooner they retire, the better. And you can quote me on that.

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Change Education Wellbeing

Positive Schools Conference in Fremantle

Today I had the privilege of giving a key-note talk at the Positive Schools Conference in Fremantle.

This was a great opportunity for me to engage with some of the leading minds in Australia in the field of mental health, wellbeing and education.

I gave a talk based on my Drowning not Learning blog post from last year. It seemed to go down pretty well with the 400-strong audience.

I’ll have video snippets of it up on my site in the next couple of weeks.

Tomorrow I’ll be keen to attend Steve Biddulph’s workshop on “The Road to Manhood –  How to make pathways to being good men.”

I’m already looking forward to speaking at the Brisbane event where over 700 people will be in attendance…

If you heard me speak (either at Perth, or even earlier this year), I’d be keen to get your feedback… you can tell me what you think on the testimonial page.

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Change Education Engagement & Motivation Wellbeing

Have you read The National Times today?

My latest article has been published by Fairfax Media’s National Times.

The most popular course at Harvard University is not medicine or dentistry. Neither is it engineering or even law. It is positive psychology, the field of psychology that is sometimes dismissed as ‘‘happy classes’’.

Tal Ben Shahar first offered the class in 2002 and eight students enrolled. By the third year 855 undergraduates attended the course making it the most popular class at Harvard. 

How could it be that at one of the most respected universities in the world, America’s top scholars need lessons in how to be happy?

Closer to home, of the one-third of high school students who walk through the gates of an Australian university nationally, about a fifth will drop out – at an estimated cost of $1.4 billion  to the taxpayer.

The reasons for dropping out are complex, but rarely related to academic ability.

Read the full article at The National Times. 

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Change Wellbeing

My talk at the Positive Psychology in Education Symposium

On Saturday 16th April, I had the pleasure of attending the Positive Psychology in Education Symposium at Sydney University.

It was a great opportunity to meet with some of the leading educators and psychologists from all over Australia and I’m looking forward to collaborating with some of them in the future…

I was also very fortunate to be invited to be one of the keynote speakers at the Symposium.

For those of you who could not attend the symposium, you can watch my talk here.


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Education Leadership

Just another disappointing sequel

My latest article has been picked up by Online Opinion.

Just another disappointing sequel

 With perhaps the exception of The Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back, sequels rarely receive comparative critical acclaim as their predecessors. Sequels often offer little to enhance the story, in many cases only serving to confuse or infuriate the audience.

My School 2.0 is an example of another disappointing sequel.

It still relies on NAPLAN scores to sustain its plot, but this time funding is introduced to the script to add further substance.

TV news reporters and newspaper journalists have been quick to expose the fact that independent schools spend more money on their students than state schools. Was that the twist in the story? Did we really not see that coming?

Federal Minister for Schools, Peter Garrett, heralded the launch of My School 2.0 as, “A great day for parents around Australia.” He also added, “We’re now going to see parents, schools, the community, the media and others really start to have a deep discussion over the next months. That’s a good thing.”

A deep discussion about what? Certainly not improving education.

Read the full article at Opinion Opinion.

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Opportunities for Teachers…

I thought I’d let you know that proposals for this years NSW Teacher Scholarships are now being accepted as well as show you an interesting video from this year’s TED talks – the common theme – improving education by looking at it differently… for those who apply… good luck!

NSW Premier’s Teacher Scholarships 2011

You wouldn’t be reading this post if I hadn’t been awarded the NSW Premier’s Anika Foundation Teacher Scholarship… (so you can blame them!!!)

But I thought I’d let you know that the Department of Education are not accepting proposals for 2011. There are scholarships for teachers of all subjects, and I highly recommend having a look at them. If nothing else it gives you the opportunity to look at what you do in a different way.

You can access details of them here.

Anika Foundation 2011

I’m honoured to say that I have been invited to join the selection panel for the 2011 Anika Foundation scholarship to address and raise awareness of youth depression.

You can download the Anika Foundation Scholarship proposal form below…

2011 Anika Proposal Form

Salman Khan speaks at TED 2011

Salman Khan talks about how and why he created the remarkable Khan Academy, a carefully structured series of educational videos offering complete curricula in math and, now, other subjects. He shows the power of interactive exercises, and calls for teachers to consider flipping the traditional classroom script — give students video lectures to watch at home, and do “homework” in the classroom with the teacher available to help.

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Change Education Engagement & Motivation

Sometimes “successful students” fail themselves…

Last month the Sydney Morning Herald carried an article that suggested that perhaps students chose university courses based on the prestige associated with such courses, rather than what was most appropriate for the individual.

Personally I don’t think this is so surprising… do you?

After all, since Year 1 they have been categorised as either good, average or below average learners, although in Kindergarten, it was probably, butterflies, caterpillars or bumblebees. In the upper echelons of primary school we have the much sought after “Opportunity Classes”. Is this to say the rest have no opportunity?

Get into high school and the distinction is a little less ambiguous. Streamed classes are portrayed as the answer to engaging students… by pushing the smartest, and giving extra assistance to those who need it. And at the peak of the  schools academic mountain we have the 2 Unit, 3 Unit or 4 Unit courses, each with added power to secure that top ATAR, with which to access the hallowed halls of university.

But here is the flip side… by streaming kids, we give them a status. Anyone who has any understanding of adolescent behaviour will tell you that status is the defining currency in the teenage years. In fact it’s not just teenagers. There is a wealth of evidence that says that a lot of adults would prefer an upgrade in their job title (no change in duties) over a pay rise! It seems the need to retain or improve our status is hardwired into us.

But at this particular time in life, to give a child a status that must be protected at all costs (no-one wants to be moved down into the middle set!) is inherently dangerous. In her book “Mindset”, Carol Dweck suggests that some students who are identified as being smart early on in their school careers develop a fixed mindset and do all they can to avoid failure, and maintain their status in the smart group.

Whilst this may appear harmless, what they are doing is working to avoid failure, rather than working to achieve brilliance – and there is a subtle but important difference. No-one achieved anything great by being right all the time.

The PFR Model of Education

Teachers may see such students as being engaged but in reality many are being subjected to an all to common educational model: what I call the “Pressure – Fear – Relief model.”

Pressure from parents, teacher, peers and themselves to perform (maintain their status)

Fear of failure and losing their spot in the smart group.

Relief when the pass the test and gain the accolades that come with maintaining their status.

I touched on this in a post last year (inspired by the work of Tal Ben Shahar) and will continue to explore this further in 2011.

So is it any wonder that after “succeeding” in this system, students will choose university courses based on the highest entry requirements? Isn’t it just a further reinforcement of their status? Add to that the prospect of a high paying job, and all the trappings that come with that… the house, the car, the latest technological gizmos…

But as Sir Ken Robinson often says, “Being good at something, is not a good enough reason to do it.”

I believe that one of the reasons that the incidence of depression continues to rise is that too many people are doing jobs they do not enjoy… sure they are good at them (and they may well pay extraordinarily well), but fundamentally they do not like what they do. And you spend a hell of a long time at work! They simply got on the conveyor belt in Kindergarten and couldn’t get off…

How much time at school is devoted to students learning about themselves, their passions and strengths? Other than academic strengths of course. If schools are genuine in their claims that they “Prepare our students for life”, then there is a moral imperative to start framing our education system (again paraphrasing Sir Ken) not around the question of “How intelligent are our students?” but “How are our students intelligent?” and work with them to discover ways to truly engage in their passions and strengths without fear or favour of labels such as; academic, vocational, non-academic, arts etc…

I argue that if we got this part of education “right” we would see a decrease in the rates of depression in the next decade, and not the actualisation of the World Health Organisation‘s prediction that our current crop of students will face as greater risk from depression as from any other disease by the time they are in their thirties.


I’ll finish with a thought about engagement. It is a word bandied around in education, often without much thought. Teachers will comment on whether students appear engaged, and will often base their evaluation of a lesson based on the students’ level of engagement. Think about what an engaged student looks like… what are they doing?

And then think why do they look like that, and why are they doing what they are doing? Is it because they are under the influence of the PFR model of education? Or are they doing it because they want to do it? Would they want to do the work, even if they didn’t have to?

Now I’m not naive enough to think that every piece of work a class is set would inspire them as such, but it would be nice if more often than not, it did… wouldn’t it?

Think about your own habits at work… are there things you do even though you don’t have to?   I would hazard a guess that it is these activities you truly engage with, and that engagement carries though into other areas of your work, making you a better employee… or employer!

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Change Education Leadership

We want better schools, but not better teachers…

Happy New Year from Sydney, Australia! I know it’s a bit late, especially in the digital age, where you receive sms-text messages and Facebook updates within 0.01 second of the first firework going off… but let me get in ahead of the crowd and wish you the best for Easter, Ramadan, Divali, Hanukkah or (enter your own religious/non-denominational festival here) _______________________  for 2011.

This year promises to be a very busy one, not least because in early February, all being well, my wife and I will be having our second child! Sleep is massively over-rated in my opinion!

On top of that as a direct result of my Anika Foundation Study Tour, I have a number of projects on the go, collaborating with people here and overseas that I’ll be able to share with you through the year… it’s all very exciting.

Now… to the news of the day!

Of all the professions, teaching is unique. Pretty much everyone has been through the education system. This is why forward thinking or innovation is often lacking in education. Society’s opinion of education is embedded with yester-year bias based on their own experience. Driven by the need to keep voters happy, politicians pander to public opinion and so by default are also guilty of yester-year thinking. Julia Gillard herself believes that the Education Revolution will best be served with a Back to Basics Curriculum!

So bearing this in mind… today’s Sun-Herald in Sydney carries an article entitled Smaller Classes Favoured Over Pay Rises for Teachers.  The piece by Anna Patty mentions that ahead of the Austrian Education Union conference tomorrow, a national survey of over 2500 people found the following…

1. 77 per cent thought the best way to build a strong economy and opportunity for all was to provide more federal government support for public schools.

2. people think investment in public schools to lower class sizes should be a greater priority than giving teachers bonus pay and recruiting the best talent into schools.

3. public opinion is at odds with a recent Australian study that found the best way to improve the academic performance of students is to invest more in teachers.

Paraphrasing these three points… we need more money in public schools to make them better (presumably to have more resources for the kids). Lower class sizes are essential, but we’re not bothered about who is in front of our kids, after all it’s only teaching.

We want better schools, but not better teachers.

There is a huge disconnect here.

The most important resources in our schools are quality teachers.

A class of 10 kids, each with a lap-top, fast internet connection and interactive whiteboard would be no better off than an impoverished class of 34 if the teacher is not up to scratch…

Teaching MUST attract the best. Teachers are responsible for the nations most precious resource – children – the future.

How to attract the best is a multi-faceted issue, far more complex than just throwing more money into the pay packets of teachers. (Although this would undoubtedly help a little.) 

Teachers need to be treated as professionals. They need to be given more autonomy to create learning experiences that best suit the needs of their school, students and community.

Teachers need to be afforded the respect that is afforded to other professions such as medicine.

I can’t imagine too many of the public would agree to cutting hospital waiting lists by recruiting anyone as doctors into the medical profession. There is a respect for what doctors do that demands the best.

Drawing the analogy further – I’m not sure the government would consider fast tracking doctors into hard-to-staff hospitals by giving them a 6 week training course as Teach for Australia  does for university graduates to get them into the schools that no-one wants to work in. 

Whilst not directly targeting hard-to-staff schools,  “Teach Next”  targets hard-to-staff subjects and offers an 8 week course with heavily subsidised fees for aspiring Maths or Science teachers then gets them into the classroom.

What does that tell you about the level of training needed to teach? Let alone in a tough school?

No doubt both TFA and TN have come about because of good intentions and noble aims, and admittedly they receive on-the-job mentoring.

However these initiatives miss the point and in doing so demonstrate a lack of respect for what teachers do. Most of the hardest-to-staff schools are the exact places where the very best teachers are needed. Teachers who are the leaders in their field – teachers who are innovative, creative, engaging; life-changing. We don’t need candidates who can just tick the boxes and fill a spot.

But I forget… it’s only teaching!

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Wellbeing Youth

Can we at least talk about it?

Well I certainly got what I asked for… and it has been a hectic few days!

The last line of my Sydney Morning Herald article asked “Can we at least talk about it?” in reference to youth depression and suicide. The overwhelming majority of the feedback both at SMH and at Online Opinion was very positive towards my article.

There was one letter to the editor in the SMH from Dr Michael Carr-Gregg who dismissed my article as “(a) hysterical thought bubble.” Fortunately another Herald reader saved me the trouble of responding by writing in to disagree! I’m glad to say that Michael Carr-Gregg and I have since had a chat and it appears we are on the same page, which is great.

What has been incredibly humbling is the amount of positive feedback and encouragement I have received from survivors of depression and attempted suicide, chronic sufferers of the condition and family members and friends of those who have completed suicide.

The article prompted two radio interviews with 2UE and the ABC which you can now hear on my new Listen Page. Of particular note, on the ABC I was interviewed with Deputy Director of SANE Australia, Paul Morgan, who concurred with me that evidence based programs must be embedded as part of a new national curriculum.

I have also received invitations from around Australia to visit universities and research labs to see first hand the work that is being done in the area of youth depression. I have also been invited to offer some input in how they could be applied in education.

Oh… and one other thing… I have finally stepped into the 21st Century myself, and acquired a Facebook and Twitter account… but I’ve no idea what I’m doing with them!