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A commitment to academic care

principal

MR TOM BATTY SCHOOL PRINCIPAL

As has been noted by many a thinker, a fundamental conflict of the human condition lies in our desire for personal freedom and readiness to restrict the liberty of others in order to achieve it. Consequences of this dilemma can, perhaps, be seen from the disgruntlement of the grounded teenager to the pre-election landscape of the USA, via a mood which saw a majority of UK voters choosing to Brexit their way out of the EU.

It is a conundrum in which balance is hard to achieve, and harder still to sustain. I would contend that the quest for such equilibrium has caused the curse of my generation (and, perhaps those on either side): our need to codify just about everything (generally under the guise of equity) that relates to the ways in which individuals engage with each other and with the institutions we have created. Whilst there can be little doubt much has been achieved for the good, this does not abrogate our responsibility for some of the less palatable consequences:

  • the rise of a culture of compliance and regulation;
  • the recalibration of our language;
  • the evolution of consumerism to a litigious environment;
  • a media industry fluent in the use of rubric as a tool for criticism, negativity and disruption;
  • democracies built from focus groups of floating voters in marginal constituencies; and,
  • a view of education as a means to an end rather than a thing in itself.

If ever there was a world which could be defined and managed by mandates, then it surely isn’t the one in which our children are now moving and shaking. The digital age has largely swept away the barriers of time, place and opportunity which bred and promulgated the prescribed industrial approach.

Theirs is a world which increasingly demands and responds to the innovation springing from the free exploring mind of the individual, coupled with our desire to form communities of support and enterprise. It is a world of flow rather than segmentation, with seamless connection to the information and people required to identify and solve problems.

So, what part in all this for education?

I suspect that for some time (centuries rather than years), those who have understood education have known that good teaching and learning is premised on dispersing intelligent people with lively minds, expert knowledge and the ability to nurture learning relationships, amidst the young and curious to interact, sow seeds, stir thoughts, inspire, support and challenge.

We also know that improvement best comes from sharing good ideas and practice amongst those involved: teachers, students and schools.

Why then, if we know this, is educational debate at government level across much of the world driven by other matters?

I suspect the problems start when seeking to apply what we know works to a universal context. A fundamental dilemma soon emerges: there just aren’t enough people with the desired skills to go round. In response, rather than tackle the underlying problem of recruiting and developing more such teachers, governments have sought to control what is taught, when it is taught and that it is taught; the last being achieved by regular universal testing against standards, the results of which are then used to declare whether a teacher/school is good, very good, bad or indifferent, leading to some control at least, of how it is taught.

Whilst there is sense in a measure of systemic accountability for all schools, I would stress a number of fundamental flaws of the content, test paradigm:

  • There is little to no evidence that it works. Yes, having spent six months repeatedly preparing for the coming test, a Year 5 boy might do marginally better than he did in Year 3. But, in the long term, no.
  • We start to believe that education has no purpose in itself, rather that it is defined by what is being tested, how it is being tested, and performance in the testing.
  • Opportunity for teachers to share their interests with those in their care (and indeed with each other) disappears beneath the weight of content; for example, the decree for Year 8 students to study financial management stifles the history teacher’s desire and opportunity to open minds to the life and works of Michelangelo.
  • Unearthing interests and strengths is overshadowed by the drive to unearth weaknesses.
  • It promotes a deficit culture in which many boys and girls, parents and teachers are left feeling they are not good enough.
  • It gives rise to a seemingly addictive and disruptive cycle for governments and administrators of, targets - content/test/measure – tinker – repeat.
  • The strain can give rise to dishonest practice.
  • The place of end of school public examinations, which have little or no claim as learning instruments, gets blurred as routine testing (wrongfully) claims a central role in the learning construct.

Our real challenge as educators is, of course, how best to prepare young people to influence for the greater good in the world they will inherit. If ever there was a case for an education premised on the regular testing of short term memory against a prescribed curriculum, then I would contend it has had its day in the sun.

How about, rather than tests that detect and, therefore, for some, reinforce, failure, we direct resources to attract and train, in sufficient number, people with the skills to develop each child’s points of difference and areas of strength? We want young people to be confident and able to adapt, to have ideas and bring them to fruitful end, rather than being burdened by the need to get three more marks on a baseline test. And, of course, if they do unearth interests and become good at one thing, then what they are really learning is that they can be good at other things. Suddenly the tests that do matter are not so daunting.

So, what might an approach to systemic education look like?

Well, up to the start of Year 11 at least, it might include:

  • a thin core of national curriculum for all boys and girls;
  • some targeted non universal testing against standards to identify and support schools in genuine need; and,
  • the remainder of the curriculum left to schools to marry programmes to teachers’ interests and expertise, or to engage in such programmes developed by other schools, or indeed the government education authority.
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It might also require:

  • schools to produce evidence of performance against such parameters as those raised by my former Head Master, Tony Little’s, Ten Questions that Need Answers, in his book, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education;
  • resources directed into teacher recruitment, training and ongoing development rather than developing and administering content and testing; and,
  • demonstrated capacity for relational learning forming an intrinsic part of teacher recruitment.
  • In short, it requires a commitment to academic care.

Academic care recognises that the capacity of a child to engage and have success in those things we deem and demonstrate as being important, has a significant impact on his well-being. Indeed, there is evidence that suggests for many young people such capacity is the most significant contributor to their well-being.

Academic care is premised on a commitment to relational learning and embracing the diverse needs of each boy, his talents, challenges, moods and ambitions; indeed, all the characteristics which make him unique, as a person and as a learner. It highlights the significance of the teacher adjusting to how each boy responds to guidance, and how he learns.

First in this is a commitment to an education that unearths interests which can be nurtured to become passions. Second is the improving of outcomes; and not just in those things which can be readily measured, including examination performance for formal qualifications, but in those which are thankfully more resistant to the normal curve: each boy’s sense of self; his capacity for interaction and collaboration; his facility to influence for the greater good.

We are fortunate at Scotch that each boy has a broad canvas on which to explore interests, develop passions and achieve success and recognition. It is a canvas that emanates from our broad academic offering and commitment to academic standards, and flows to our sporting, cultural and service programmes.

By way of example, recent days have seen exchange boys welcomed from England, Scotland, the USA, South Africa, China, Germany and France. We have welcomed back a Year 12 boy from his time representing Australia in the Physics Olympiad, which gathered the world’s best young physicists in competition in Zurich, while another in his final year enjoyed success as part of the team which won the Inaugural Monash University Asian Studies Debating Competition.

Two Scotch cyclists have been chosen as part of the six-person Australian under 19 team to compete in the UCI World Championships, to be held in Qatar in October, while a Year 9 boy was a member of the Victorian Metro under 16 basketball team which took out the gold medal at the National Championships.

Boys spent the mid-year break kayaking amongst Alaskan glaciers, treading ancient Greek paths and having their minds opened to the European contribution to the world of science. As cricketers adjusted to damp English wickets and the swinging Dukes ball, pipers and drummers took on Europe’s best as they toured Scotland. And, on a memorable evening at the start of Term 2, Old Boy, Max Foster (’09), took time out of his Julliard studies to enthral all in attendance in the James Forbes Academy with his performance of Mozart’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in D minor.

Education is not just a means to an end, it is a thing in itself. It is the judging and nurturing of conditions best suited to develop the ongoing growth of the innate and acquired potential of each individual to the greater social good. I would contend that we lose sight of this at our peril. As Steinbeck noted in concluding his brief East of Eden treatise on the free exploring mind of the individual, ‘If the glory can be killed, we are lost.’

Updated: 3 October 2016