The essence of teaching and learning

Teaching and learning can’t be defined or qualified by a rigid curriculum – and can’t be improved ‘simply’ by spending more money.

WE ARE A FICKLE bunch. While in the UK over the summer break, I got to see ‘my’ football team, Brentford, play against rivals Milton Keynes Dons on New Year’s Eve at ‘our’ home ground, Griffin Park. Having met up pre-match with a number of like-minded, loyal, long-standing and long-suffering friends, I found myself seated in ‘my spot’ surrounded by many faces that have become familiar since my first visit, aged four. Excitement was high, the place abuzz with expectation.

Six minutes in and ‘we’ were two goals down. Half-time and it was 3-0 and the team were booed off the pitch. During the interval, I was the focus of many a comment of the type ‘Fancy coming all that way to see something like that’. Twenty minutes into the second half and we got one back. With 10 minutes to go our striker converted a penalty to send the crowd into frenzy. In the final minute of play, with home fans swinging from the rafters and singing their hearts out in praise of their team, the equaliser was willed into the net. Fans embraced in rapture as the team went about a lap-of-honour to a standing ovation. Those around me questioned how I could bear to be away from the place. All went away happy – minds racing, thoughts buzzing, senses alert, passions aroused.

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Somewhere amidst the 90 minutes of play, triggers were at work setting individual minds and bodies in motion, on and off the pitch. In the blink of an eye, individual actions were being influenced by all around them: an instinctive turn, a tactical change, a quip of humour, a blow on the whistle, an instruction, a set-play, a piece of genius (okay, that might be stretching it a bit). Views were being freely expressed and challenged, opinions shifted, outcomes altered, licence given, guidance provided, performances nurtured, praise offered, feedback delivered.

Somewhere, on the pitch and throughout the rich diversity of the crowd, such triggers were bringing about change, and these triggers are the levers of teaching and learning: levers which hinge at the micro and influence at the macro.

Similar thoughts were stirred by two books I read between airports: Denis Avey’s account of his wartime experiences, The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz, and Edmund de Waal’s beautiful and haunting tracking of his family’s history through the life of a collection of Japanese figurines, The Hare with Amber Eyes. In different ways, both works focus thoughts on the effect, through direct impact and distant ripple, of the decisions and actions of individuals; of the depth and range of influence when a person moves from passivity to action, of mind and deed. Education, with teaching and learning at its core, provides one of the few opportunities societies have to stimulate such change and to nurture and guide individual growth.

Such were the expectations, which, at the start of the year, greeted the 1,874 boys who now form the heart of our school. That the 278 new faces amongst them had travelled from homes as diverse as Laos, Camberwell, Hong Kong, Brighton, Scotland, Violet Town, the United Arab Emirates, Deniliquin, Hong Kong, Bentleigh, Malaysia, Doncaster, Germany, Hawthorn and China, says much about the school we are and the richness we have to work with.

Amongst the more seasoned campaigners were some 600 boys whose summer breaks had been given added spice through the commitment and skills of 70 members of our regular staff. Boys had spent summer weeks involved in such familiar activities as cadet promotion courses, scout training, and acquiring outdoor leadership skills. There were camps for footballers, sea scouts, rowers and Christian Movement members as well as the traditional beanos of senior and junior Scotch at Cowes gatherings. While our 16A team headed north to Brisbane, our 1st XI cricketers were in dominant early form on the Main Oval against Eton, but less convincing down by Sydney Harbour against Scots.

Our Pipes and Drums stirred up New Year’s Eve celebrations at Federation Square and, some hours later, 2012 was welcomed in by French exchange students in Lyon and Paris, and our basketballers in the US. And, in a new venture spearheaded by Head of Middle School, Pino Cutinelli, we hosted (on the Hill) a holiday camp for children with severe disabilities sponsored by the Sony Foundation Australia.

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Staff member Ben Marr (‘91), Jamie MacMillian (‘09) and John Anstee (‘09) with friends at the Sony Foundation Star Camp at Scotch in December.

Over the past couple of years much of the education debate in Australia has been dominated by the Review of Funding for Schooling headed by Mr David Gonski. We await a detailed response from the Government, and I tend to feel the devil this time won’t so much be in the detail as in the possibility of a fragmented, piecemeal approach of expedient ‘priorities’ from the recommendations.

Of particular interest, as an educator, is the seeming underlying premise of the review that, alone, greater funding for schools leads to improved outcomes. While it is not hard to see advantage for all in a better co-ordinated, less complex and more coherent, streamlined and transparent funding model, before committing dollars to words, it might be worth considering what makes a good Australian school and good teaching, and the role funding can play in pursuit of such goals.

Consideration could be given to the findings of Michael Fullan, who has written extensively, and from practical experience, on right and wrong drivers for systemic school improvement and John Hattie who has done likewise on teaching and learning. And maybe some serious consideration could be given to those important aspects of an education which go on beyond the classroom. Engaging in such a debate would help keep the focus on evidence and educational outcomes and, in so doing, perhaps give the financial ‘ask’ on the public greater legitimacy. What we seem to have been offered is faith in a ‘vanilla schools’ standard determined from NAPLAN (National Assessment Programme, Literacy and Numeracy) scores.

In my December article, I made note of our continued commitment to embrace and promote ongoing conversations of learning across the breadth of our school environment. Good teaching and learning, like good pastoral care, requires a continuum of intimacy and engagement, and an open environment which encourages the sharing of ideas and knowledge across people, time and location. Our newly-formed Teaching and Learning Executive and Groups will be looking to further inculcate such practices in the culture of our school, and our master planning ensures our physical environment will develop in harmony with our educational goals.

One final tale from my brief sojourn in the UK. An old and dear friend, sometime economist and sometime teacher of children with learning difficulties, posed this question to me: two men are walking together along a country road in the dark of a winter’s night when they are hit by a truck. One is a multi-millionaire, the other has next to nothing. Which one is most missed? As a hard-nosed economist, my friend went on to make the case for ‘potential’. Following his thinking, I choose to paint a somewhat different scenario. Imagine two boys who are achieving the same test scores in their studies are walking along a road together when suddenly they are transported to a beautiful far-off land where they live at peace happily-ever-after.

One of the boys attended a school driven, by funding requirements, to focus on teaching to tests based on a curriculum prescribed to the last cross on each ‘t’ and dot on each ‘i’. The other experienced a broadly-based liberal education, which delivered a curriculum, inside and outside the classroom, reflecting the interests and talents of its staff and students. He was encouraged to engage, to offer opinions, unearth and pursue interests, to create, to question what he was taught and to challenge the thinking of others. He felt confident so doing because of the strong relationships he had forged with his teachers, coaches and other students. Throughout his schooling he had been exposed to diversity, expectations and service. Which young man is more likely to be missed by those who didn’t know him?

A lesson doesn’t start at 9 and end at 9.40; it isn’t confined to one room; it doesn’t exist as the private realm of any one teacher and one class of boys; and its success can’t solely be measured by an end-of-topic test. Similarly, teaching and learning  can’t be defined or qualified by a rigid curriculum; it can’t be solely measured by nationwide testing; it doesn’t pause at the sound of the school bell or cease with the final casting off of the school tie; and it can’t be improved ‘simply’ by spending more money.

It’s just not that easy. We’re not that easy.