Time for a High Expectations Relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia

19/10/2011 - 4 Responses

Keynote Address
18 October 2011

Strong Start Bright Futures Conference, Darwin

Ladies and Gentlemen let me start today by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land here.

I want to use this time this morning to offer some points upon which to reflect, and to challenge current views and perceptions about the nature of the relationship between Indigenous and non Indigenous Australia and the extent to which this can be perceived as a constructive partnership so far. I don’t intend to throw up a range of graphs with figures about Indigenous education, as I am sure many of you are already across this, and that you will see plenty in the days to come. Suffice to say for now that Indigenous education has for too long been entrenched in a toxic equilibrium of low expectations and poor outcomes. Having said that, I note there are indeed some positive signs of change.

This is not to say for one moment that the data about Indigenous education is not unimportant. We must continue to attempt to punctuate that same equilibrium it describes. Moreover I would like to add that as an Aboriginal educator I welcome accountability in Indigenous education becoming equal to accountability in non-Indigenous education. I am an advocate of NAPLAN and the MYSCHOOL website, acknowledging its limitations and potential to be over-read by some, yet providing the mechanism for transparency and accountability in Indigenous education that has simply not existed previously.

Let me challenge you with some perspectives and hope that you will embrace the points I have to note with goodwill and as useful feedback about things that I think are indeed worth reflecting upon, in the interests of developing and embracing Indigenous Australians in a dynamic and productive relationship and in the interests of delivering on the promise of a strong start which ultimately will anchor the pursuit of a bright future.

In particular I want to discuss the notion of a high expectations relationship with Indigenous Australians. As part of this discussion I want to explore the role of the schools in embracing and nurturing a positive and authentic sense of Aboriginal, or Torres Strait Islander identity. This inevitably will lead into the need to discuss the role of education Institutions and the extent to which we prioritise identity and culture issues for individual students, or the extent to which we prioritise the pursuit of literacy and numeracy outcomes and the development of standard Australian English.

As the basis for this discussion about the challenges let me take some time to articulate what I call the Stronger Smarter Philosophy….

The Stronger Smarter philosophy honours a positive sense of cultural identity, acknowledges and embraces positive community leadership, enabling innovative and dynamic approaches and processes that are anchored by high expectations relationships. High expectations relationships honour the humanity of others, and in so doing, acknowledge one’s strengths, capacity and human right to emancipatory opportunity.

Historically we can never really say there has seriously been a high expectations relationship in which the humanity of Indigenous Australians has been adequately acknowledged. From the very outset colonisers assumed we were either ‘non existent’ or at the very best, savages. We were considered amongst flora and fauna and as our ancestors were shot or driven off our land, with many meandering toward a pitiable existence on the fringes of provincial centres. At this time the best response offered was to assume the full bloods would die out and round up those not of full blood, separating them from their parents, and explicitly teach them how to be less Aboriginal so they could survive in a modern society as assimilated Australians. We cannot call this a high expectations relationship.

Even beyond this time the humanity of Aboriginal people has never been adequately acknowledged. This is why many billions of dollars have been wasted trying to make a difference with such futile efforts.

Why is this so fundamentally important?

When we acknowledge the humanity of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islander people we can get to a space where we can acknowledge the challenges and complexities we face together. Not just challenges and complexities for Indigenous Australia, but challenges and complexities for all Australians.

Further, we acknowledge a sense of Indigenous human capacity to rise above such challenges, as well as a sense of worthiness; Indigenous Australians afforded the right to an opportunity to rise. The extent to which we have been able to do this remains seriously questionable.

It is true that many millions have been thrown at the challenges in Indigenous policy: it is not true that those millions have been thrown in a way that adequately honours the humanity of Indigenous Australians.

When policy was devised to round Aboriginal people up, place them on missions, make them work, but siphon off their wages into government coffers, this signalled a lack of belief in the capacity of Aboriginal people to spend their own hard earned money. Despite being considered capable enough to work as domestics, farmhands and stockmen, we were not considered capable enough to spend the money we earned.

Such policy was fundamental to engineering the impoverishment of Aboriginal Australians, and today’s generations of Aboriginal people are still confronted by the legacy of dysfunction and chaos.

Up until the mid 1960’s in remote parts of Australia, Aboriginal stockmen were actively engaged in the economy. They could once be justly described as proud men, and they were the backbone of the pastoral industry. This is until the equal wages decision was brought down and decreed that Aboriginal stockman should be paid the same as their white Australian colleagues. The result was many of those proud Aboriginal stockmen, were put out of work and disengaged from that economy that once underpinned their pride. Something about white Australia at the time considered Aboriginal people unworthy of receiving equal wages.

Again this lack of belief in the worthiness of Aboriginal people played a significant part in engineering the impoverishment that still bears its legacy today… A legacy that somehow we as Aboriginal people are often blamed for by some white Australians who have no understanding, or no will to understand, the complexities of our joint past.

In subsequent times we saw the rhetoric of self-determination, with Aboriginal people supposedly able to make decisions about their lives. This is what some commentators like to refer to disparagingly as the ‘Coombs agenda’. Some critics would have us believe that the self-determination movement is responsible for all the ills that afflict Indigenous Australians. The inference is that if only we had stayed under the missionaries all would have been well. The reality, however, is that beneath the rhetoric of self-determination those decisions Indigenous communities make are only taken up if they are approved by the white people who sit above us. This is a reality even in the loftiest of heights for Aboriginal Australians.

We can hardly call this a high expectations relationship.

More recently the NT Intervention continued the pattern of signalling a lack of belief in the sense of capacity and worth of Aboriginal Australians. Thus it failed to acknowledge and honour the humanity of Aboriginal people in the NT. Aboriginal people in remote NT communities were considered so incapable that the army had to be sent in from the outside to fix them. Howard and Brough presented the facade of consultation, but in reality they were only in search of views that matched their thoughts about how despicable Aboriginal people in remote communities were. The result was policy process that did things to people, not with them. This is an approach that reveals a very limited belief in Aboriginal humanity. Today we see the Indigenous Affairs Minister making the same mistakes by fishing for incidental anecdotes from a few people here and there to validate such a diabolical and dishonourable policy processes.

We can hardly call this a high expectations relationship that signals a belief in the capacity and worth of Aboriginal people.

Admittedly the very concept of a high expectations relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia might seem extraordinarily complex, but my experience suggests it should not be. There are some profoundly fundamental aspects of such a relationship which are easily understood by many decent Australians. Let me give you some examples from a schools perspective.

Teachers who accept without question that black children are usually absent on Thursdays and Fridays collude with low expectations…

Teachers collude with high expectations when they challenge such behaviour and consistently visit parents to find out why they are away… when they make the effort to explain that they don’t want their children to be missing out on so many opportunities… when they engage in an authentic dialogue with children and parents to discover what they might need to change… when they reflect on their own classroom practice to consider what they might need to do differently… This is a marker of a high expectations relationship!

A teacher, whose first move when they encounter challenging behaviour from a particular child, is to find a way to stick a special needs label on them, is colluding with low expectations… The teacher signals a high expectations relationship when they reflect on their own classroom practice and learning environment to consider what they might need to adjust, before going down the route of special needs labels.

At Cherbourg School I introduced a curriculum reform package known as Dimensions of Learning led in Australia by Professor Richard Smith. One of the neat things about this is that it was the same curriculum reform being applied at Brisbane Grammar. I believed absolutely that whatever was good enough for students at the very flash Brisbane Grammar was just about good enough for children at Cherbourg.

This signalled a belief in the capacity of our children and that Aboriginal children deserve the very best that will enable them to develop to their fullest potential.

A very scripted curriculum program like Engelmann’s Direct Instruction would never be embraced at Brisbane Grammar, or any other high expectations learning environment, because it can only go as far as the script, written by some old guy in the USA, allows. This is a pedagogy for the poor that might deliver results that enable us to take up roles as domestics, farmhands or relatively unskilled workers, but can never seriously deliver an education that enables our children to be excellent.

It undermines the learning potential of children… and it severely undermines the teaching potential and professional integrity of teachers. It is an approach pursued only in places where we have surrendered our ability to attract quality teachers, and relinquished, if it existed at all, our capacity to perceive Aboriginal learners as potentially excellent.

This approach bears the stench of a low expectations relationship.

At Shepherdson College in East Arnhem Land.. under the leadership of Bryan Hughes, he has established an arrangement in which he is mentored by several old men from the community.

When he has a problem.. he goes to them.. says here is the challenge I am facing.. what do you think I should do?

They talk in their own language… and come back and say here is what we think is a solution.

This is an approach that signals belief in the capacity and worth of Aboriginal people.

Imagine how easy such approaches are…. and now imagine how consistently we have failed to do things like this…

Again here in the NT… in an effort to purge lazy and incompetent teachers who would struggle to get teaching positions in mainstream schools… under the leadership of Gary Barnes… the slogan to attract much required exceptional teachers has shifted from .. Come and teach in the territory and have an adventure.. with some vague reference to teaching in there somewhere.. TO… a slogan that says…

Are you good enough?

This is a marker of a high expectations relationship with Aboriginal communities… It is a catchcry that says Aboriginal children deserve the best… and we will not take anything less on their behalf… It is an approach that injects a much needed sense of integrity in our profession.

We observe collusion with low expectations in high schools where Indigenous students turn up at the school with hearts full of hope and then drop out after a few months. There is no fuss, there is no enquiry. Yet if this were happening to non-Indigenous students then heads would roll.

This is collusion with low expectations… a kind of toxicity that should not be tolerated.

It is always interesting to observe the sense of place of Indigenous people in Education. In schools…. it is sometimes the case that if you want to find Indigenous people, you have to go out the back… As blackfullas we have a saying that we are resilient enough to laugh about… Blacks out the back…

Amongst ourselves we laugh about this… but we also notice what it says about the extent to which we are regarded…

It is not only a sense of physical ‘place’ that lets us reflect on whether or not we are engaged in a high or low expectations relationship… A sense of ‘positional space’ can also signal the extent to which we are regarded in our sense of place in Education. To this end it is worth reflecting on whether or not Indigenous people are represented right across a broad spectrum of our sector… or indeed just pigeon holed into the ‘Indigenous area’ … as if this is the only place we can be utilised effectively.

At a higher level the Commonwealth’s National Partnerships program introduced by our Prime Minister when she was Education minister, and coupled with NAPLAN and MYSCHOOL, invests in complex schools and says that regardless of the complexity of your communities, you deserve the right to a good quality education.

This is a marker of a high expectations relationship.

In a high expectations relationship one must start by acknowledging and honouring the humanity of others. To reiterate, this fundamental first step in a relationship does two things. It signals a belief that one is worthy of that ‘fair go’ that many hold dearly as an Australian article of faith. It also signals a belief that Aboriginal people are capable of lifting themselves given the right opportunities to do so.

Honouring the humanity of others by signalling a belief in their sense of capacity and worth is the very basis of a productive relationship in which positive outcomes can almost be guaranteed. As a school principal I always set out to connect with the humanity of Aboriginal children and parents, regardless of the complexities they were located in, and even if they were coming to the relationship in a somewhat hostile manner. Clearly I was paid to be in the relationship and it was incumbent upon me to reach out positively. As we keep reaching out in an effort to connect with the other’s humanity, eventually they reach out to us and the potential for a positive partnership emerges.

In engaging the humanity of others, we also come in touch with our own humanity. As we connect at such a level we take our work more seriously and more personally.

In the words of Ian Mackie… when we make our work personal the question shifts from ‘What do we do with this child?’ to ‘What would I want done if this was my child?’

If we can connect with each others’ humanity we come to understand that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people… are Australia’s people. At this point a high expectations relationship can and does emerge.

In such a relationship we must be sophisticated enough to understand and appreciate that at some levels we will have differences, all of which is great, and at another level we will be the same, which is also great.

Some however seemingly just can’t get this.

They will argue the need to somehow be ‘same’ at every level; that we should all just be Australians… the same… with none of this “divisive us and them” mentality. This is a view often promulgated by those fearful of difference and the ‘same’ they speak of is really … ‘same as them’.

This type of sameness they yearn for is not only impossible to achieve … it is dishonourable to pursue.

On the surface there might even appear some logic behind those same people who argue almost piously that it is not right to separate Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

The inconvenient reality is … Health, education, justice and participation data has seen us unfairly separated for many decades now … let’s stop pretending here that we have enjoyed some sense of togetherness.

And in the past those same people were usually silent about the appalling degrees of separation in such statistics. It was a discrepancy that was either ignored by them… or confirmed their stifled belief about who Aboriginal people were, and what we were worthy of.

Being silent about shocking data that clearly revealed a sense of separation and ‘us and them’ back then … must surely stifle their right to be noisy today.

In simpler terms … If they shut their mouth about notions of ‘us and them’ in the past…. then really they should shut their mouth today.

A high expectations relationship requires policies, programs and processes that are both fair and firm. Being fair in a relationship requires time to observe and acknowledge the strengths of an individual or community. This enables us to contemplate ways of supporting, developing and embracing existing capacity, as opposed to assuming it is not there in the first place.

Let me remind you here of the example of Brian Hughes’ leadership at Shepherdson College.

Being firm in a relationship requires us to have courage and be prepared to challenge and intervene at times when individuals or communities are clearly not exercising their responsibilities appropriately.

A relationship is anchored by low expectations when we only set about supporting and developing, without the courage to challenge and intervene. Such approaches allow governments to announce how much money they are throwing at particular challenges, with very little to say when it comes to announcing tangible outcomes.

A relationship is anchored by low expectations when the only strategy we deploy is intervention, without a belief in individual and community strengths worth enabling and investing in. Such approaches allow governments to engage in the politically sexy approaches that see millions of dollars wasted on big stick approaches that offer little positive returns in terms of positive outcomes, compared to much cheaper and effective measures that see investment in positive high expectations relationships.

A relationship is anchored by high expectations when we have the compassion to be fair, by engaging in acknowledging and enabling processes when we can, as well as having the courage to be firm, by challenging and intervening when we need to.

In the lead in to this paper I promised I would address the role of education Institutions and the extent to which we prioritise identity issues for individual students, or the extent to which we prioritise the pursuit of literacy and numeracy outcomes and the development of standard Australian English.

I have seen some schools get distracted by the pursuit of Indigenous identity and language to the extent that we have rendered less important, the pursuit of improved outcomes in literacy and numeracy as well as functionality in Standard Australian English.

The casualty here of course is unfortunately… Aboriginal children, who may have a ‘nice’ experience at school, but not one that enables them to be functional and successful beyond their own community.

Please don’t misinterpret what I am saying here. I am not advocating a circumstance in which those leading in the schools should be closed minded and culturally insensitive.

All I am suggesting here is the need to be culturally sensitive without being professionally crippled, and the need to be open minded, but not so open minded that our brains fall out.

At this point let me refer you to the research of Professor Sven Silburn of the Menzies Centre for Child Health and Development who has recently completed a review of world’s best practice in teaching successfully in complex language environments.

Conversely… I have seen in places… schools focussed solely on improving literacy, numeracy and other conventional education outcomes, without the courage, commitment or ability to nurture a positive sense of identity.

Again this is a challenge that need not be so complex… It seems to me it has evolved as one of the binaries created for us… usually within the context of scarcity around resourcing… but also scarcity around professional capacity and knowledge.

It should simply not exist as a binary.

It is a bit like saying do we want practical reconciliation … or do we want symbolic reconciliation…. when the answer is … what is so hard and complex about having both?

In a schools context… do we want children to be strong culturally…. or do we want them to be smart academically… the real answer is… they have a human right to be strong and to be smart…. strong in their sense of cultural identity… and smart enough to be functional in any modern society.

Today I have articulated what I think are some challenges… with some seemingly complex at some level, yet profoundly basic at other levels.

There are many exceptional people in the room here today… and it was never my intention to come here and give you all the answers… as I am quite certain many of you know what you are doing..

Rather… my role here this morning was simply to inject some issues for consideration in your subsequent discussions for the remainder of this conference.

I hope you have found some of these insights useful.

Let me conclude by touching upon the necessity for hope.

A stronger smarter future for Indigenous Australian children is possible and we should offer them nothing less.

As leaders in education we must deliberately to turn our backs on the narratives of despair. Chief among these is the narrative “We’ve tried everything and nothing works”. These prophets of despair are usually never convincing when they tell you what they actually have tried, they simply repeat that tired old mantra that is so lacking in integrity, “We’ve tried everything and nothing works”.

If we must be guided by people from the USA, let us be guided by people like Martin Seligman and instead learn and inspire optimism. In Australia let us be guided by school leaders such as Bryan Hughes of Shepherdson college.

Let us be guided by school leaders such as Jane Cameron from Glenroi Heights in Orange NSW, who has successfully engaged parents in early learning processes;

– By Michael Hansen at Cairns West offering benchmark guarantees to Indigenous parents and students;
– By Richard Barrie whose leadership has seen the most dramatic improvement on NAPLAN in Queensland;
– By Simon Cotton of Yarrabah who is determined to deliver excellence;
– By Paul and Donna Bridge, leading on a stronger smarter agenda for excellence across the Kimberly.
– By Dyonne Anderson who transformed Cabbage Tree Island Public School in Northern NSW.

I have seen enough now across Australia to know that when school leaders and teachers believe they can make a difference … they make a difference!

Acknowledging the humanity of Indigenous Australians means we must begin with the assumption that parents are willing to support us; that children are willing to learn; that teachers are capable; and above all that we can and will provide a quality education to all Indigenous Australians.

In a high expectations relationship we can do this.

Indigenous policy: be compassionate, be brave

11/10/2011 - One Response

Taken from ‘THE CONVERSATION’ 06/10/2011

Why do we keep spending billions of dollars in Indigenous communities with so few results? It’s because we don’t have a high expectations relationship between both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Setting up this relationship isn’t as hard as you might think.

There are some profoundly fundamental aspects of such a relationship which are easily understood by many decent Australians.

Ask not what you would do to them
How do you start a high expectations relationship? Acknowledge and honour the humanity of others. This fundamental first step in a relationship does two things.

It shows you think the other person is worthy of that “fair go” that we hold dearly as Australian rhetoric. It also shows you think the person is capable of lifting themselves, given the right opportunities to do so.

It defies human logic to imagine we can achieve positive outcomes if we dishonour the humanity of others by doing things “to them” not “with them”; by dishonouring Indigenous men by casting them all as paedophiles, drunks and wife bashers; by dishonouring Indigenous women and men by suggesting we are “empowering” them by making the decisions for them about which shops they can spend their money in.

Honouring the humanity of others by showing we believe in their sense of capacity and worth is the very basis of a productive relationship. Positive outcomes can almost be guaranteed.

Reach out; connect
As a school principal I always set out to connect with the humanity of Aboriginal children and parents. This was regardless of the complexities of their situation, and even if they were coming to the relationship somewhat hostile. Clearly I was paid to be in the relationship and it was incumbent upon me to reach out positively.

As we keep reaching out in an effort to connect with others’ humanity, eventually they reach to us. Together a positive partnership is possible.

As we connect at such a level we take our work more seriously and more personally. In a school, when we make our work personal the question shifts from “What do we do with this child?” to “What would I want done if this was my child?”

This should be no different at a community level. In a high expectations relationship where we take our work seriously and make it personal, the question shifts from “What do we do with these people?” to “What would I want done if these were my people?”

If we can connect with each others’ humanity we come to understand that Aboriginal people are Australia’s people. At this point a high expectations relationship can emerge.

Be fair, but firm
A high expectations relationship requires policies and processes that are both fair and firm.

Being fair in a relationship means taking time to observe and acknowledge the strengths of an individual or community. This enables us to contemplate ways of supporting, developing and embracing existing capacity, as opposed to assuming it is not there in the first place.

Being firm in a relationship means being prepared to challenge and intervene at times when individuals or communities are clearly not exercising their responsibilities appropriately.

A relationship is anchored by low expectations when we only set about supporting and developing, without the courage to challenge and intervene.

This approach is marked by politicians great at issuing media releases to say how much money they are spending, but hopeless at saying what tangible outcomes are achieved, apart from a few anecdotes here and there.

A relationship is anchored by low expectations when the only strategy we deploy is intervention, without a belief in individual and community strengths worth enabling and investing in. You’ll see politicians whipping uninformed electorates into frenzy, enabling gross amounts of expenditure on clumsy policies and programs that deliver little or no return, and ultimately exacerbating ill feeling toward Indigenous Australians.

A relationship is anchored by high expectations when we have the compassion to be fair, to acknowledge strengths and enable them when we can. But we must also have the courage to be firm, by challenging and intervening when we need to.

Effective Indigenous policy reform: closing the right gap

15/08/2011 - 2 Responses

From ‘The Conversation’ 15/08/2011 – http://theconversation.edu.au/effective-indigenous-policy-reform-closing-the-right-gap-2743

AFTER THE INTERVENTION: Chris Sarra from the Queensland University of Technology says white Australia must address its relationship with Indigenous people to truly close the gap.

There has never seriously been a high expectations relationship in which the humanity of Indigenous Australians is acknowledged. From the very outset colonisers assumed we were ‘non existent’ or at the very best, savages. We were considered amongst flora and fauna and our ancestors were driven off our land and many meandered toward a pitiable existence on the fringes of provincial centres. At this time the best response offered was to assume the full bloods would die out and to round up those not of full blood, separating them from their parents, and explicitly teach them how to be less Aboriginal so they could survive in a modern society as assimilated Australians.

Even beyond this time the humanity of Aboriginal people has never seriously been acknowledged. This is why many billions of dollars have been wasted trying to make a difference with such futile efforts. Why is this so fundamentally important?

When we acknowledge the humanity of Aboriginal people we acknowledge the challenges and complexity we face together, and further, we acknowledge a sense of human capacity to rise above such challenges, as well as a sense of worthiness to be afforded an opportunity to rise. The extent to which we have been able to do this remains seriously questionable.

When policy was devised to round Aboriginal people up, place them on missions, make them work, but siphon off their wages into government coffers, this signalled a lack of belief in the capacity of Aboriginal people to spend their own hard earned money in their own interests. Despite being considered capable enough to work, we were not considered capable enough to spend the money we earned. In a sense such policy was fundamental to engineering the impoverishment of Aboriginal Australians, and today’s generations of Aboriginal people are still confronted by its legacy of dysfunction and chaos. What is unfair is that Aboriginal people are readily blamed by those who lead an ignorant existence with no true insight into the realities of Australia’s black history.

Up until the mid 1960’s in remote parts of Australia, Aboriginal stockmen were actively engaged in the economies of remote Australia. They once could be accurately described as proud men, and the backbone of the pastoral industry. This is until the equal wages decision was brought down decreeing that Aboriginal stockman should be paid the same as their white Australian colleagues. The result was many of those proud Aboriginal stockmen, were put out of work and disengaged from that economy that once enabled them to be so proud. Something about white Australia at the time considered Aboriginal people unworthy of receiving equal wages. Again this lack of belief in the worthiness of Aboriginal people played a significant part in engineering the impoverishment that still bears its legacy today.

In subsequent times there has been the rhetoric of self-determination, with Aboriginal people supposedly able to make decisions, but the reality that usually such decisions are only engaged if they are approved by the white people who sit above us. This is a reality even in the loftiest of heights for Aboriginal Australians.

More recently the NT Intervention continued the pattern of signalling a lack of belief in the sense of capacity and worth of Aboriginal Australians, thus failing to acknowledge our humanity. Aboriginal people in communities were considered so worthless that the army had to be sent in from the outside to fix them. This is doing things to people, not with them. This approach signals no belief in Aboriginal humanity.

Australia must be prepared to have a high expectations relationship with Aboriginal Australia, in which our humanity is honoured, and in so doing s our worth and capacity are fully acknowledged. Unfortunately the mainstream blogosphere signals that still too many Australians seemingly lack the capacity to embrace Aboriginal people in a more honourable way. This is the gap that truly needs closing.

I’m certain we share a desire to make a difference in Aboriginal communities. It can only be achieved in a high expectations relationship in which we support and develop each others’ capacity to lift ourselves, while at the same time have the courage to challenge and intervene as we need to.

With a high expectations relationship we truly can transcend today’s complexity.

Transformational Technology

08/08/2011 - 6 Responses

The use of technology in our education space is an area that is so exciting, so unpredictable, and in every way limited only by our imagination.

I’ve recently joined the many other people challenging the status quo and started using an iPad with my work.

Here at the Institute we have been fortunate enough to be working closely with the Apple team and we have all been blown away in our efforts to discover the functionality and possibilities of iPads and their potential to truly transform education and how we work with students in Australia and throughout the world.

It also led me to reflect on my days as Principal at Cherbourg and how the school transformed to integrate technology into the students learning experience.

As I said to students when I was at Cherbourg all those years ago, ‘The use of computers and ICT’s is like the new literacy. We got left behind in the old literacy, and there is NO way we are getting left behind with this one.’

As a result I insisted that we throw whatever new technologies we could afford and get our hands on, and let the kids loose on it. It was so exciting to watch them engage such tools, often displaying a complete lack of fear that was usually evident within some of us as teachers.

Having spent some hours with the Apple team I feel that same sense of apprehension about how exciting, yet how daunting such pursuits can be. In many ways though I think it offers a challenge to us as educators and how we have done things in past decades. Many of us have been accustomed to being the keepers of knowledge, and handing it out to all hungry minds that will listen. The next few decades I’m sure will tip all of that approach on its head, and require us to be just as excited and just as inquisitive as our students, and be prepared to acknowledge that we may not be the great keepers of all knowledge anymore.

As I have come to know from just the few hours with the Apple team, knowledge is everywhere now, and we have to be ready to go with our children wherever they want to go to acquire it in a virtual sense. Our own sense of fear will make us blockers and stifle learning. Our sense of excitement, enthusiasm for learning, and our own inquisitiveness will make us facilitators of unbounded potential for learning.

How exciting is that?

——-

How is technology transforming your classroom? Share your stories by leaving a comment.

COAG report on Indigenous education

14/06/2011 - 5 Responses

The future of schooling – an expectations game?

06/06/2011 - Leave a Response

Article in The Australian, 6 June 2011; IBM Shaping Our Future

It is an exciting to contemplate the future of schooling in Australia because in so doing we are reflecting on both the future of our children and our nation.

Technology as always, has delivered dramatic change to our society and the way we engage with each other. If someone were frozen in time just 20 years ago and brought back today, I am sure they would be so amazed yet confused at what they observed.

They would see people walking around twiddling their thumbs into the palms of their hands, texting their buddies. It is also possible to envisage them staring in wonder as people walk around, seeming completely comfortable about talking away at some apparent voices in their head. They’d recognise computers yet be amazed at just how many people are actually using them now because they have to.

As we look back 20 years and reflect in sheer disbelief and amazement, it is exciting, yet ominous, to wonder about what schooling might look like in the future.

It is tempting to wonder whether or not we can learn entire languages just by downloading the information into our heads just as easily as we download an iPhone application. Will there even be such a thing as schools where children turn up and sit before an all-knowing teacher who dishes out knowledge?

These are things we cannot be certain about. There are a few things however, that I am quite certain about.
I am certain about the demand for transparency and accountability of our learning institutions.

There are opportunities for us as educators, as we contemplate the future of schooling together. If we can embrace positively this demand for transparency and accountability, we can restore a sense of honour to our profession that should have always existed.

In part this will mean coming to grips with the enduring presence of transparency and accountability mechanisms such as NAPLAN diagnostic tests and MySchool websites.

The honourable approach is to embrace such mechanisms as opportunities for feedback and development that can inform us on our progress and future directions. Of course, governments and politicians must assist here by resisting the ongoing temptation to over-read such mechanisms and afford them more significance than necessary.

This has been a challenge in the past and is likely to be a challenge in the future. I suspect there will also be a challenge to schools to ensure that education remains the key to a positive future for all children.

As any teacher knows it is exceptionally hard work to offer a school experience that enables students to transcend beyond disadvantage, or a challenging social context. It is becoming easier to understand though, that when we have quality leadership in schools, quality teachers, and quality relationships with communities, we get positive student results.

The cultural difference of a student, or the extent of social disadvantage of a particular child, is thankfully diminishing as an excuse for delivering poor-quality education outcomes.

Whilst we have some way to go, I am optimistic that there really will be no place for any teacher with low expectations to hide in any education jurisdiction in any part of Australia.

If we want our schools of the future to have intellectual integrity then this must absolutely be the case. As it is for schools of today, schools of the future will need to understand just three things to be effective. High expectations, high expectations, and high expectations.

It will not hurt either, to love children, and to love the profession.

Despite the exciting and unimaginable advances that will be made in our shared future, it will always be the case, that there will be learners and teachers, existing in a special relationship. While we may be great at interacting with computers and new technologies, we will always have to be exceptional in our relationships as exceptional human beings.

In the future I’m sure the relationship between the learner and the teacher will be just as special and magical as it is today, and always has been. To get some insight into just how powerful and magical this relationship is, it is sobering to understand that even the oldest people alive in our country are most likely to remember a teacher they once had at school.

They will remember whether or not that teacher made them feel great about who they were as a child, or made them feel pretty rotten. This is the power and magic of being in a teacher student relationship that will always exist and should never be underestimated.

Many of us might remember that one teacher who said “Hey, this is really hard … But I reckon you can do this. Others will remember that teacher who said something like “You won’t amount to much!”

The power in the teacher student relationship is such that it is very possible, in fact even usual, that the teacher can send a message to their students, without even knowing they are sending one. Conjointly it is possible that students can receive a message without even knowing they are receiving one. The message can say something positive, or something negative.

This is why schools and teacher student relationships today and into the future must be resolutely positive. The learning environment and the teacher student relationship must be relentless around a message that says consistently to learners: “Hey, I believe in you!”

Acknowledgement of Country: Costs nothing but worth so much

03/06/2011 - 3 Responses

It was disapointing to see the Victorian Premier and others dismiss the symbolism of acknowledgements of country as unimportant. I have been to New Zealand several times now and on every occasion I have been with a delegation of non-Indigenous Australians who say they are embarrassed at how New Zealand society can do so well at acknowledging and embracing their Indigenous people, while we really struggle to do the same back here.

The rationale for such dismissive thinking is that is pandering to minorities. I find this a bit strange when in reality it seems to me that most decent Australians are now very comfortable with the notion of acknowledging country as a ritual in formal meetings. It could be argued that dismissing such a ritual is in fact just pandering to an unenlightened minority.

Some will argue that we should be less bothered about such symbolism and more concerned about practical measures to engage Indigenous Australians. My question is what’s so difficult about having both? In fact I wonder if it is indeed possible to have one without the other. Imagine what this measure has the potential to do in terms of undermining any scope for a positive relationship between bureaucrats in Victoria who might be working hard to engage Koories in a practical way.

Acknolwedgement of country is a symbolic gesture that costs absolutely nothing: yet it can be worth so much.

Not the only way to teach Indigenous students

26/05/2011 - 12 Responses

* From the National Indigenous Times

A key challenge in Indigenous leadership is to lead honourably in a way that sees us rise to be considered among the best, rather than engage in dishonourable processes attempting to pull others down. The educational futures of Indigenous children are much too precious to be sullied by dishonourable behaviour and processes.

Recently Noel Pearson became excited by the work of John Hattie, a noted statistician and education researcher who analysed and provided a statistical value to the effectiveness of a broad range of facets existing in a teaching and learning environment. What excited Pearson about Hattie’s analyses was the statistically low value effect afforded to the facet of ‘positive view of own ethnicity’ and its impact on learning. For Pearson, Hattie had administered an “intellectual slapping”, and like the good lawyer he is, he thought this was the smoking gun that refuted all the work of the Stronger Smarter philosophy.

Such thinking exposes the flaws of legal type thinking in an education type space. Legal type thinking decides what the solution is and cherry picks evidence to support this assertion, while at the same time doing the same to shoot down alternative and potentially much better points of view. It also exposes an exceptionally limited understanding of the Stronger Smarter philosophy which is shared and applied by many of Australia’s leading educators in schools today. Stronger Smarter is also an emancipatory philosophy appeasing many Indigenous Australians at a time when they are actively seeking more honourable alternatives to draconian school, welfare and Indigenous policy reform.

To point out the obvious here, the Stronger Smarter philosophy cannot be disingenuously reduced to just one facet of learning – that of a positive view of one’s ethnicity. It is an approach about entire school cultures and community engagement processes in which we set out to embrace a positive sense of identity, positive community leadership and ensure high expectations leadership with high expectations teacher-student relationships. Hattie’s work places the impact of high expectations at number 1 in terms of the most effective facets of teaching and learning and it is pleasing to have the most fundamental aspect of the stronger smarter philosophy endorsed empirically by such an eminent education researcher.

If Pearson is serious about having his views seen as worthy in reputable education dialogue, his energies are best spent on highlighting what is good about Engelmann’s Direct Instruction as this will require some effort. Hattie gives a dramatically negative rating to the impact of welfare reform, a fundamental aspect of Pearson’s reform agenda. To be fair, and not wanting to cherry pick the data, Hattie does rate positively the effectiveness of Direct Instruction.

It is vital for everyone to understand the difference between what I call conventional Direct Instruction, and Siegfried Engelmann’s Direct Instruction. Engelmann’s DI claims to be scientific as it rests upon the outmoded behaviourism of B.F. Skinner, an approach buried by Chomsky in his review of verbal behaviour in way back in 1967.

Pearson is a zealous promoter of Engelmann’s exclusive commercial product. This is a highly restricted and scripted teaching program. With Engelmann’s DI, what is important is not the role of the teacher but the designing and packaging of the material that the teacher is expected to deliver in a prescribed order. It stifles every teacher’s professional autonomy, and the teaching and learning relationship, when the McKinsey 2011report on quality schooling shows that great education systems require teachers who are autonomous professionals who enjoy a life of the mind.

Counter to this, Engelmann’s DI can see the teacher running to the prescribed script in which they must say something like “This is a wolf. What is it?’ Forget for a moment the fact that there are very few wolves in Cape York. If a child says ‘Miss can we write a story about a wolf?’ the teacher is likely to ignore them because that dialogue is not in the script they are required to follow.

Englemann’s work is highly controversial but Pearson is adamant that it is the ‘magic bullet’. Indeed in his 2009 Quarterly essay, Radical Hope: Education and Equality in Australia, Pearson, on page 102, goes as far as to claim that Engelmann’s DI is the solution to problems such as the crime and imprisonment rates of Afro Americans and even the problem of children born out of wedlock to teenage black mothers. For Pearson the magical qualities of this commercial version of DI are such that it is the one true method. On page 44 he asserts that any alternative methods are not only ineffective, simply to advocate them is somehow to betray the poor and condemn them to a life of disadvantage.

On page 45 Pearson bizarrely tries to convince us that Engelmann DI is the only scientific theory of instruction in the entire history of education. Readers might be forgiven for thinking that if DI is the magic bullet, and only one true and scientific method, why then weren’t they exposed to it? How come they survived and learned to read? Are their teenage daughters in danger of becoming pregnant? If it is so good then why is it not applied in quality schools where parents are empowered enough to demand it as the magic bullet, or reject it as a pedagogical approach that can only ever produce education outcomes that enable its students to emerge as domestics or farmhands?

For an honourable dialogue here we must step back from the controversy and smoke and mirrors of this DI. The data will of course show some improvement and this should not surprise us. In any circumstance where there is substantial financial investment and interest in a particular area the data will always shift. The challenge here will be to explain why we should continue with such financially exorbitant approaches like Engelmann’s DI, while other stronger smarter Indigenous schools are returning comparable or better academic and attendance data at an absolute fraction of the cost, and a much more substantial investment in more honourable high expectations relationships with students and communities.

Clearly this will be difficult as Engelmann DI advocates are not like most quality educators. They are zealots convinced they have the one true faith and the rest of us are heretics. That is why throughout his Quarterly essay, Pearson tells us his “viscera are churning” at the thought of those who will not see the light and who thus oppose him. For effective and innovative policy reform we must all be inspired and influenced to believe and think differently, not intimidated or bullied to believe my way ‘or else!’. It is impossible to reason with zealots, as Obama will find despite the release of his birth certificate. “Birthers” will simply denounce it as forgery and go right on believing he is not American. Similarly all the evidence in the world will not convince the Engelmann DI folk there is no such thing as one true method.

Most reputable educators are in very firm agreement that conventional DI with explicit teacher directed learning, does indeed have a vital place in reputable classrooms. Most reputable educators also readily dismiss Engelmann’s DI in any high expectations teaching and learning environment. Indeed, it is often regarded as an approach offensive to students as it assumes they can only learn from a script, and offensive to educators, as it assumes they can only teach using a script; all of which are prescribed by some old guy in the US. This denies teachers and learners of the true magic that can exist in quality teacher/student relationships.

The wider Australian public should be reminded that before Pearson had heard of Engelmann, he was persuaded to believe the magic bullet was the Israeli Literacy Scheme (YACHAD Accelerated Leaning Project). It too was inflicted on the children of Aurukun. Millions of dollars later the scheme which had been developed to improve the literacy of Ethiopian children in Israel was found to be unsuitable for Aurukun. Pearson then was persuaded to believe in MultiLit as the magic bullet. He also believed Djarragun College, currently under investigation, was an exceptionally run school.
Against my better judgement I felt coerced into offering my perspectives on Engelmann’s DI. It is not how I work conventionally, however on this occasion, passive disengagement and failure to challenge such unfounded criticism would be collusion with mediocrity. Having articulated my views here I have no intention of diminishing the efforts of hundreds of stronger smarter educators in schools and communities throughout Australia by pretending both approaches should somehow exist in the same conversation.

As I said earlier, the educational future of Indigenous children is far too precious to be influenced by spurious claims with dishonourable and disingenuous behaviour. It must be led by the best educators, receptive to alternative perspectives, with an absolute commitment to the pursuit of nothing but excellence for Indigenous children and the promise of a stronger smarter future.

The Stronger Smarter Philosophy

18/05/2011 - One Response

*From the National Indigenous Times

“The Stronger Smarter philosophy honours a positive sense of cultural identity, acknowledges and embraces positive community leadership, enabling innovative and dynamic approaches and processes that are anchored by high expectations relationships. High expectations relationships honour the humanity of others, and in so doing, acknowledge one’s strengths, capacity and human right to emancipatory opportunity.”

Cherbourg State School is the genesis of the Stronger Smarter philosophy and as I reflect on this I am always so proud of the efforts of Cherbourg’s children, parents, Elders and community. At the Institute we always said we wanted to change the tide of low expectations of Indigenous children in Australian schools and so it is important to acknowledge just where that ripple started.

Together we created a high expectations school culture with the Strong and Smart philosophy. In part it is fair to say I led the journey while always remembering what it was like for me as an Aboriginal student in school. Mostly it was positive, but after leaving, it became exceptionally clear that in an academic sense I had been sold short, and I had sold myself short.

Today at the Stronger Smarter Institute we are determined to get children to see and understand some of those things I just didn’t see when I was at school. Low expectations. We are also determined to get teachers and school leaders to understand the power and magic of teaching.

All of us, no matter how old we are, will remember a teacher we had at school. Even the oldest people can recall a time when they were at school, when a teacher made them feel ‘no good’ about themselves, or ‘deadly’ about themselves. This is what I mean by the power and magic of teaching.

If it is so powerful then, as teachers, school leaders and parents, we must be determined that our classrooms are sacred spaces in which our children can dream about being anything they want to. It doesn’t even matter if our children aim for the moon and miss because they still might land amongst the stars.

Doctor Kelvin Kong once told the ABC that his “darkest memory from childhood is coming home one day after being taunted about..my race.. and feeling absolutely shattered about it. And I had a bath and I was scrubbing myself, trying to get rid of my brown skin.”

Today he says he’s “Strong, black and proud. I’m a strong man because of my family. I’m a proud man because of my family… nothing gives me more pleasure than to walk around and let everyone know who I am and what I represent.”
Imagine when our first Indigenous Prime Minister, is interviewed! Wouldn’t it be deadly to hear him or her say, “My family and teachers always believed that I would go on to do great things. They expected me to achieve and I expected that of myself.”

Of course our Indigenous children will not all go on to become doctors, lawyers, Prime Ministers. But every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child has the right to be strong and proud in their cultural identity and feel strong and smart in the classroom.

I’ve said it many times, and you will hear it many more until the ‘tide of high expectations’ becomes a tsunami that educators cannot ignore.

It is so important that every person at every level of the Education system has high expectations of our children. Anything less is collusion with a stereotype that Indigenous children are underachievers. I have seen so many examples from so many schools around the country to know that this is simply an unfounded belief.

I will never forget the smiling proud faces on the Cherbourg students on the parade ground chanting their strong smart war cry, knowing very well that it meant they had to be working extremely hard in the classroom so that it was more than just words. I hope that they will never forget that moment too.

To get better students everybody is accountable

12/05/2011 - Leave a Response

*from the National Indigenous Times

A headline in The Australian newspaper recently claimed: “To get better students you need better teachers.”

The article investigates how we grade our teachers with a new report arguing that the current system is done purely to meet administrative requirements and a more meaningful system of appraisal and feedback for teachers will increase their effectiveness by up to 30 per cent.

For change to be lasting it says “schools should be in charge of teacher appraisal and feedback. They should define what is effective teaching and learning in their school, and set objectives based on their definition.”

At the Stronger Smarter Institute and those that join us we don’t carry the headline that to get better students you need better teachers.

We argue to get better students you need a school and community committed to cultural change, to change the tide of low expectations in Indigenous Education.
We expect nothing less than the best from our Indigenous students, we instil that “success is culturally appropriate”. Principals, teachers, aides, students, parents, elders and the community ALL must raise the bar on expectations and not collude in negative attitudes.

This means everybody is accountable.

Strong leadership in the school; trust in the classroom; support for students to expect and achieve goals and respectful and inclusive relationships with parents, elders and the local community.

Sure statistics tell us alot about the ‘success of students and teachers’. They measure outcomes and performance and give us clear indicators that what we are doing and how we are doing it is working. Indeed are own story in this edition begins by highlighting the achievements of Tullawong State High School.

But statistics can only tell us so much. Why or more importantly how these results are achieved is the core element to lifting the bar on Indigenous education outcomes and keeping everybody involved accountable.

How did Tullawong increase its attendance rate of Indigenous students and lift their NAPLAN results? How did Toronto High featured in the last edition of NIT, go from having a constant police presence to a friendly, tidy and positive learning environment?

These schools and many more who are committing to the Stronger, Smarter principles are partnering with their local communities and neighbouring schools to aim high and expect the best from our Indigenous students.

The Australian article goes on to say that at the moment, “assessment and feedback are largely tick-a-box exercises that are not linked to better classroom teaching, teacher development or improved student results. It proposes a system of continual feedback on effective learning in classrooms to improve teaching, student performance and assessments.”

This is a basic but essential element in the Stronger Smarter approach, not just to ensure its success, but its sustainability and in time expansion to create Stronger Smarter Learning Communities.

The challenges, environments and goals for each school and their community is different and will mean different solutions.

At Tullawong State High School, they introduced community meetings for Indigenous community members to build capacity around decision making. It allowed the Indigenous community to ask the hard questions.

Why are our kids not achieving? What are you doing about your curriculum to improve Indigenous outcomes?

But the process is a two-way street. It meant a commitment from the community to share their expertise, understanding and provide direct input into matters.
A trip to the Northern Territory recently showed me how the Shepherdson College Learning Community is taking up the challenge and finding solutions. Led by Bryan Hughes, the group of school leaders identified the key issues they wanted to address in their respective schools where they then supported, developed and challenged each other to improve.

They chartered a plane to visit each of their schools to observe classroom pedagogy and school operations. Over three days, open and honest feedback was provided with shared learning’s and professional conversations throughout their travels. They felt the insights and reflections of their colleagues was the best professional development they had ever experienced. It created an opportunity for deeper reflections and learning.

Bryan said, “There is no place to hide during these conversations and the best thing is … none of us wants to!” He said there were many personal transformations in the team making them stronger and smarter. Stronger in their ability to listen and accept challenging feedback. Smarter in their capacity to learn through shared thinking and constant challenging of their leadership.

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