Chris Pyne wants to be your BFF!

blah blahIn his first few weeks as Federal Education Minister, Christopher Pyne has continued the Coalition’s penchant for pithy – if a little superficial – slogans, saying that the government’s policy on schools is “achievable, affordable and believable.”

It even rhymes.

But what does that actually – y’know – mean?

Speaking last week at the Independent Education Union’s National Conference, Pyne offered us a glimpse into his thinking. The government’s education reform policy is built around three pillars:

·      The Australian Curriculum

·      School Autonomy

·      Raising Teaching Standards

It will be what Pyne describes as an “unapologetically students-first policy.”

In order to develop the “highest possible standard curriculum” Pyne, will “refocus” the work of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) – the group of education experts who have worked over the past five years to deliver Australia its first national curriculum.

By “refocus” he means cutting funds and “transferring to the Department of Education all data, reporting and compliance functions.”

But even with the agency focused solely only on curriculum development, Pyne is unlikely to take much notice of it.

”I don’t believe in handing over responsibility for government policy to third parties,” he says, ”The Westminster system of government requires ministers to take a hands-on approach to matters within their portfolio.”

So it appears ACARA will not only lose $23 million in funding, but also the last three letters of their acronym.

There is history between Pyne and ACARA’s chief Barry McGaw, when Pyne publicly criticized the History Curriculum. Apparently it had too much emphasis on indigenous history and nothing about the Westminster system of government.

It appears Dr McGaw is going to get a personal lesson in the ways of a Westminster system of government and Pyne himself will have a direct say in what is taught in schools.

But that might not be such a bad thing right? Because after all, he says the government’s plan for school education is “unapologetically a students-first policy”.

Great news. Until you realise Christopher Pyne’s idea of students-first might not be the same as a teacher’s idea of students first.

He believes we need more, “didactic teaching methods, more traditional methods rather than the child-centred learning that has dominated the system for the past 20, 30 or 40 years.” He is intent on overturning child-centred learning although he doesacknowledge he will not be able to do this overnight.

And his instincts tell him that, “a back-to-basics approach to education is what the country is looking for.” He says, “We’ll review the Australian Curriculum so that it delivers what parents expect.”

An average mother (with regard to age, not parenting skills) who’s first born is going to high school next year will be forty, meaning that – assuming she finished year 12 – she left school twenty-two years ago.

Personally, I hope school is not what she expects.

I hope it’s changed significantly since she was at school when the hot topic of conversation on the school bus would have been about how to best record a mix-tape off the radio.

As an advocate for school autonomy, Pyne has committed $70 million to an Independent Public Schools Fund “to encourage schools to be more empowered, and to take on more autonomy and responsibility.”

And why wouldn’t he? As Pyne told the IEU Conference, “Such schools have proved a terrific success in Western Australia – allowing locals to set their own priorities and make more day-to-day decisions about important matters.”

Except they haven’t. Not in WA, or pretty much anywhere else in the world for that matter. Pyne Friend Request

In talking about teaching standards in Australia, Mr Pyne recognised that teachers do, “outstanding work in Australia”, and that he and the Government are “here to support them to become the best professionals they can be.”

In fact he went as far as to say that this government wanted to be “The best friend teachers have ever had.”

Although presumably he doesn’t want to be BFF’s with the forty-odd thousand teachers who aren’t “up to scratch.”  I think he wants to kick them out.

And it’s not just those bludgers that need to lift their game. The teachers’ best bud reckons, “Concerted action is required to lift the quality and status of the teaching profession.”

Perhaps teachers aren’t that outstanding after all?

Whilst Mr Pyne’s musings are cause for concern to many in the sector, it’s what he’s not saying that is – frankly – alarming.  He is point blank refusing to talk funding.

Educational inequity – particularly for kids from indigenous and poorer backgrounds – is by far the greatest issue confronting the education sector (and dare I say the country).

56% of Australia’s indigenous population live in QLD, WA and NT.

The significance? These are the three jurisdictions yet to sign up to the new schools funding model.

And the minister’s response?

He says, he’ll have a plan, ‘Hopefully sooner rather than later.”

Far from being best friends forever, I’m tipping that the heady mix of the unwillingness to recognise the funding issues, its meddling in the curriculum and superficial slogans will mean that the relationship between teachers and this government will be far from rosy.

Change Education Leadership

Why, why why… don’t we ask the right questions?

Those involved with education reform  in Australia, the UK and US seem to focus on what we should teach students, when we should teach our students & how we should teach, assess and compare our students with their international counterparts.

To me, it appears that those leading educational change* neglect the most important questions of all.

Why should we teach our students that?

Why should we teach our students then?

Why do we assess kids in manner we do?

Why are we comparing our students to kids (particularly in Asia) who are being educated to staff factories and call centres?

I believe we really need to get to the WHY of education.

I was fortunate to be in a room the other day when Susan Groundwater Smith posed a great question (in the style of TV quiz show Jeopardy):

“To what question is School the answer?”

I don’t know if there is one particular question that fits the bill here, but I do know that most politicians aren’t courageous enough to even think about it.

*In this post, the word change is used with a great deal of poetic license.

Education Engagement & Motivation Leadership

My Latest Sydney Morning Herald Article

Page 17 of today’s edition of the Sydney Morning Herald carries an article I wrote regarding the development of the new Australian Curriculum. Read it online here

Entitled “Old Ways Curb Young” Minds and featuring comment from Daniel Pink, Richard Gerver, Brian Caldwell and Professor Robyn Ewing, I will  be interested to see what reaction it gets, not only from the Education sector, but the public in general.

Please let me know what you think!

In other news…

My colleague, Ray Francis and I will be presenting at this weeks Association of Independent Schools Pastoral Care Conference. We are running a 60 min workshop on “Strengths-based approaches to Student Wellbeing.”

I’m also pleased to confirm that I have been invited to speak at the highly regarded Generation Next Youth Wellbeing Seminar in Perth in September.

Click here for more info on both of these events.

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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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Education Engagement & Motivation

Only the “bright” allowed to shine…

In the latest Sun-Herald in Sydney, there is an eight page spread about how parents should choose an independent school. obviously it has had significant input from various independent schools as well as including a 39-point checklist for things to look for when choosing the right school for your child. It spoke of looking at the individual needs of the child, the extra curricular opportunities,as well as the policies in regard to religion, homework and bullying. Countless articles and advertisements spoke of how schools value the students’ individuality in their quest to achieve their potential.

Nothing much to write home about here you might think, let alone enough ammunition for a blog piece!

Then I read the piece regarding accelerated learning, and in thirteen words it shone a light on what I believe is a glaring flaw in the education of our children as it stands in the majority of schools today.

In bold type The Sun Herald proclaimed, “Research shows that if bright children aren’t challenged… then they will underperform”

Indeed they will, and not only underperform in the particular field that they are strong, but elsewhere in their studies/school/ and possibly life.

The problem I have is not with the statement itself, rather I take issue with the way in which we interpret and act on the statement. In schools we run accelerated learning programs for our “brightest” students.

Accelerated learning is when schools react to the ability of the child, and teaches them with regard to their aptitude rather than their age. So a Year 7 student could well be studying at a Year 9 level, if they are considered “bright” enough.

Accelerated learning takes place predominantly in maths and the languages – that is to say schools identify “brightness” with aptitude in these fields.

And because schools do… generally speaking, so do parents.

By identifying “brightness” in the narrow band offered by academics, they dismiss intelligence in other fields as insignificant. How many of us have been told (or told someone) “Don’t waste your time on that, you won’t get a job doing it…” As if intelligence can only be quantified by earning potential.

Now I’m not saying that accelerated learning is a bad thing. On the contrary, I think it is a great idea. It just needs to be applied across the board.

Now more than ever, parents and schools need to identify exactly how are their children intelligent, and they need to be given the flexibility in the curriculum to push these students in the same way we do the gifted mathematician.

I wonder how many talented artists, musicians, poets, writers, sculptors, carpenters, mechanics, acrobats, dancers, comedians or actors are underperforming right now because their talents have not been recognised or validated by their school or parents? Moreover, how many of these potentially brilliant individuals are lost to their field in their early years through lack of recognition or validation? Imagine if accelerated learning in these particular fields was the norm rather than the exception. Imagine the levels of engagement in their learning across the student population.

The Moral Imperative

Too many people end up doing things they hate. They endure what they do rather than enjoy it. (Thanks Sir Ken!) 

I firmly believe that this plays a significant role (along with other factors) in the rising levels of depression. Furthermore I believe they have ended up in this situation because of their education. (See my last blog entry)

If I’m right, then the moral imperative for education and parents in the 21st century is to help students identify, nurture and validate their strengths and passions regardless of their academic or non-academic nature.

The World Health Organisation tells us we are set on a course for a depression epidemic… this could just head it off.


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Education Wellbeing

Study Tour | Week 5 Wrap

So five weeks come to an end. It’s been a remarkable time in the UK, USA and Canada. Just this week I’ve had the opportunity to work with Tayyab Rashid in Toronto, and he is doing some very cool stuff with Signature Strengths in education. He works in a wide range of schools from the affluent to the less well off and looks to engage teachers, students and parents in the work. He is also looking to develop more resources that can be used in schools, and we to be able to collaborate in some way with Tayyab on these in the coming months.

Whilst in Toronto, I also had the chance to sit in a Year 10 English Class at Riverdale School (no connection with the Riverdale school I visited in NYC), where positive psychology had been embedded into the curriculum. This was part of a huge curriculum document that the University of Pennsylvania have designed, and it was being implemented by Tayyab’s wife Afrose. Both Tayyab’s and Afrose’s work is part of a significant research project to measure, in a quantifiable manner, the effect it has on the students.

I also met with Therese Joyce (an Aussie who now lives in Canada) who is the director of the EF School in Toronto. She’s done some great staff development training based on positive psychology which the actual effect on staff wellbeing has also been measured by the University of Melbourne. The results of which the EF school are still waiting on.

From temperatures of -11 (yes, minus eleven) celsius I flew to Phoenix, Arizona to meet with Dr Howard Cutler. Dr Cutler wrote the “Art of Happiness” series with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. (The Art of Happiness was on the New York Times best seller list for TWO years!). He is in the process of developing an Art of Happiness educational program, which he plans to pilot in Phoenix. As a psychiatrist, with expertise in Positive Psychology AND years of experience of working with the Dalai Lama, I was hoping for an inspiring and exciting few hours conversation… and I got it! We talked about all manner of things and we challenged each others thinking and agreed on many aspects of our educational philosophy. Again I’m honoured to be able to say that Dr Cutler wants to continue to work with me in the future on in the first instance his Art of Happiness in Education project… very exciting!

To try to sum up what the experience of this tour has been like for me in a few words would prove futile. I believe it will be in the coming months or even years that I truly understand exactly what I’ve gotten from it.

What I can say is that I’ve made partnerships, and dare I say friends that I hope to continue working with in the months and years to come. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and engage with people whose work I have admired for a very long time, and the fact that many of those same people would like to work with me in the future is incredibly exciting and affirming for me.

Thank you to all the people who gave up their time to meet with me and share their work. It was a truly inspirational time.

I’d really like to thank the Anika Foundation who sponsored this trip, and I hope to do them proud with the programs, partnerships and ideas I bring back to Australia.

Where to from here…? To be honest I have so many ideas and projects in mind, that I need to take some time to reflect and prioritise. I know that some of these ideas may well challenge some of the long-held beliefs about education and the role of a teacher, and I know there will be barriers and challenges to overcome.

What I can say is… if you want to come with me… jump on board, the more the merrier!

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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!

Change Education Wellbeing Youth

Did you get the Sydney Morning Herald today?

I’ve always been a fan of the Sydney Morning Herald and Radio 2UE; and today is no exception!

On page 11 of today’s edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, you will find an article I have written entitled “It’s time to confront the deadliest demon of them all” (the SMH’s headline, not mine.)

In it I discuss the role of teachers in enhancing the wellbeing of students. I also discuss the need for the national curriculum to allow teachers to do this, by recognising that the 21st Century student needs a 21st Century curriculum; not some rehashed 200 year old model.

Click here to read “It’s time to confront the deadliest demon of them all” on the Sydney Morning Herald site.

In my article I also mention the work of Shelley Crawford and Nerina Caltabiano entitled The School Professionals’ Role in Identification of Youth at Risk of Suicide.  Due to the nature of an opinion piece I wasn’t able to go into any detail regarding this study, but it is definitely worth reading if you are a teacher, counsellor or parent.

Please feel free to contribute either to the comments on the SMH site or right here!

I’m also being interviewed on Radio 2UE’s Drive show today between 3.30 & 4.30. Tune in to 954 on the AM dial.

It’s now less than 2 weeks until I head off on my Study Tour. I will be sending an  “e-postcard” each week letting you know what I’ve been up to.

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Education Wellbeing

Product Recall Announcement: Faulty Students

In a move likely to cause concern, several schools have issued a Product Recall for the students produced in the last 5-10 years. According to the schools, the students are missing key aspects of their educational development. A series of Sydney Morning Herald articles sparked the recall with rates of HSC students reporting psychological and psychiatric issues rising 30% between 2005 and 2009 and Universities decrying the lack of resilience in modern day undergraduates. *

*Not strictly true. No school to my knowledge has ever issued a product recall. Although maybe some should! 🙂

One definition of education is: the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.

I repeat; “Preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.” Research and anecdotal evidence suggests that whilst academic levels continue to rise, it is at the expense of social, emotional and spiritual intellect; three aspects of mature life that are arguably of far greater consequence than academic intellect. Add to that the fact that good academic marks, a degree or even PhD no longer guarantees entry into the work force as it once did.

In an attempt to meet the challenges of the 21st Century, it has been deemed a National Curriculum is required to ensure that all Australian Schools are (in the words of Minister for Schools, Peter Garrett)”Great”. However this process is proving to be something of a farce. In order to get the writers of the curriculum thinking straight, Garrett has asserted it should be ready by December; this year; two months from now. The last time Garrett pushed to rubber stamp a policy in a hurry it concluded with the roof insulation scheme, which received mixed reviews at best! One would hope the Government would not be so quick to try and push through legislation that will impact on every child in Australia.

From drug education, sex education, resilience, self awareness or dealing with stress, more and more schools are turning to outside agencies to deliver programs and/or sessions that deal with the aspect of life skills. A colleague of mine who works in the field of Positive Psychology tells me she has never been busier fielding calls from school principals looking for experts to run programs in their schools to help “rescue” their students. Time and again extra things are bolted on to the curriculum offered by the school. If the curriculum needs so much attention at the back end, surely it’s time for a serious re-modelling process and not just a Back to Basics approach.

But more than that, it needs a significant shift in perspective from schools, teachers and communities. The days of the science teacher saying, “It’s not my job!” when it comes to looking out for a student’s wellbeing are long gone. Research paper after research paper tells us we are living in a less cohesive, more demanding society, that is asking more of our children than ever before. The majority of students spend many more hours per week with their teachers than with any other significant adult in their life.

With that exposure to Australia’s youth, education leaders, schools and teachers have a huge responsibility for their students’ wellbeing.

With a depression epidemic predicted by the World Health Organisation, now is the time to ensure that the health, identity and wellbeing of the student is front and centre of the school experience. Academics are important, of course, but only in so far as to enhance, and not at the expense of the three fundamental concepts I have identified.

In 2011 I’ll be speaking at the Positive Psychology in Education Symposium at Sydney Uni, as well as the Positive Schools conferences in Perth and Brisbane, alongside the likes of Australian of the Year, Professor Patrick McGorry and renowned psychologist and author, Steve Biddulph. I intend to continue this discussion there, here and everywhere in between. Please sign up for email updates (top right) to stay in touch…

Change Education Leadership

When Will We See the Education Revolution?

Recently I posted an entry relating to the Labour Government’s Education Revolution and the responsibility that falls on the shoulders of those writing the new National Curriculum.

Today’s decision by the Independents to side with Labour means that the Revolution will continue for another 3 years at least…

The Macquarie Australian Encyclopaedic Dictionary defines a Revolution as;  “(n) 1. a complete overthrow of an established government or political system. 2. a complete or marked change in something.

So far under the banner of an Educational Revolution; Labour has built new School Halls, Libraries and Covered Outdoor Learning Areas. Nothing about revolutionising education there… same old stuff going on, just in nicer surrounds.

As reported in The Age in August, as part of the second wave of the Education Revolution the Labour government will look to roll our salary bonuses to the top 10% of teachers in Australia. So now we will pay bonuses to teachers who excel at delivering the same old stuff.

The roll out of the National Curriculum has been touted as revolutionising education in Australia. 

But surely it only serves to reinforce the antiquated hierarchy of subjects that were the foundation blocks of education during the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s. Maths and English first; the arts and health/physical education much later. This model of education was developed to meet the needs of Universities about 200 years ago. Does this model of education really suit the needs of the 21st Century Student?

Maybe/Maybe not…

But at the very least can we please agree to stop using the term “Revolution” until we have an education system that;

i) Serves to highlight, reinforce and develop the strengths and passions of students.

ii) Ensures an ATAR/HSC/School Cert result is not the only distillation of a student’s educational experience by which career paths or further study options are open or closed.

iii) Is built around a system that places as much value on an arts student as an academic student.

iv) Rewards creativity rather than restricts it.

Then we may actually see a complete or marked change in education.