Sunday, January 15, 2017

Week 4: Can schools make a difference?

"There's an alternative. There's always a third way, and it's not a combination of the other two ways. It's a different way." David Carradine

I suppose the hallmark of a good reflection question is one that stops you in your tracks - really makes you think, or as Professor Alex Moore would say, one that challenges your assumptions. Well, this week's reflection task has had this affect on me. My initial response is, of course schools make a difference. I've been a teacher for over 25 years, I must believe that what I am doing is worth while and has some kind of impact on the lives of the children I work with. After listening to this week's lectures and completing the readings, I have come to realise that I am not sure if schools do make a difference, especially those organised in a traditional manner.

School Bokeh by Ryan McGilchrist on Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
Can schools make a difference? This is such a broad question I feel the need to narrow it down a bit and preface my own response, understanding that I am making broad generalisations. When talking about a school I am referring to those that are most typical (if there is really such a thing), but those with classes organised by grade or year level, with homeroom and subject teachers. A place where students are assigned to a class and expected to meet specific outcomes or standards before being promoted to the next year level. An organisation with a set curriculum, whether it be national or international, inquiry-based or some other pedagogical approach. While I know there are many different types of schools, all of which vary greatly depending on specific context, generally this descriptive framework applies to a certain extent.

This week's lectures in What Future for Education? were based on an interview with Dr Jane Perryman, who began by describing what we might mean by a good school. Her stance was that such a school would enable students to do better than they expected they could do and that this is such an individual thing, that an ideal school would be different for different people. How can we possibly measure the effectiveness of schools if the ideal school needs to be different for different students? With the invested interest of governments in the success of their schools, there will inevitably be attempts to try and standardise schools, which in turn ultimately means that schools try to become the same as they are measured with the same assessment tool. Her examples focused on the UK's Ofsted inspections and the impact it has had on schools in Britain. Her findings suggest that the negative impact of such school inspections greatly outweigh the positive effects.1 In fact, when asked if it made a difference what school a child attended, she asserted it was not as important as how a child was raised.

So, do schools make a difference? I think they do in some circumstances. My very first teaching position was in a remote, northern community in Manitoba, Canada. The school (there was only one) was an important part of the community. The school had dependable heat, electricity and running water, all of which were not certainties in the homes of the students. The only library in town was the one in the school (remember - this is pre-internet and Google days!) and it provided books not only for our classes, but also for a home reading programme. Through school activities, such as sports and music, students had opportunities to travel to other communities and meet students from other schools. I believe that this school did make a difference to the lives of the children in that particular community. In a community that was marginalised, where many of the families lived below the poverty line, it enabled students to learn more about the world outside of their town and provided a safe place where the community could come together. In a way this school is similar to the community school described in Mark Smith's article for Infed. It was an integral part of the community and used by all, but there was little in the way of curricular innovation or democratisation. Its foremost purpose was to educate the children in the community and that curriculum was dictated by the province.

From here I moved on to the city and a teaching position in a private school. The majority of the students came from very wealthy families and success at school, and then moving on to university, was an expectation. The parents were very 'hands-on' and greatly involved with every aspect of school life. The focus at such as school was really on student achievement, and back then, in the early 90s it was a wonderful opportunity to explore inquiry-based teaching and learning. In fact, it was in this school that I was first introduced to the IB's Primary Years Programme. My students were lovely and my colleagues rather amazing. I loved being in a collaborative environment and trying new things.

During this time I had a friend teaching in public school. We would often talk about the differences between our schools and the challenges she faced that were simply not an issue where I worked. My school was not inclusive, the students were selected based on a series of entrance requirements. I did not have to deal with behaviour issues or students with great challenges to their learning. I remember feeling it was all so easy. My friend was quite passionate about her work and believed her school was making a difference in her students' lives. I couldn't really say the same. I was  quite convinced my students would have done well at school, no matter the teacher, no matter the system. They would do what was necessary to go to university and select the career path they most desired.

5/365 by Anna Gutemuth on Flickr CC BY 2.0
As my own children got older and we began to travel to other countries, experiencing as a family different schools and systems, I began to see that, too often, student success was not because of the school, but despite it. I saw cases of inspirational teachers, but not inspirational schools. Archaic homework practices, heavy work loads, working in isolation and fearing the repercussions if something was not done the way a particular teacher wanted it done, I found myself saying to my own children, you just have to get through this (assignment, course, teacher, year) and then when you graduate you can begin to have control over what you decide to do. School became something to be endured and if you survived you would have the opportunity to choose what would come next. Perhaps time for a gap year to discover what inspires you or what area of further study you might want to explore.

I want schools to make a difference - as both a parent and an educator. I've been struggling with the notion of what a school should be for a few years now and this week's reflective prompt has helped me clarify my thinking - at least in so far as to recognise that this is a very complex issue. Can schools be different for different people? Do schools have to be the same? How might we measure their effectiveness? What do we mean by effectiveness? We tend to measure things that are easy to measure, but perhaps in education, the things that are important cannot be measured easily.

As luck would have it, I came across this image a couple of days ago on Facebook.

At the end of the day, these are the qualities I hope my children (and my students) will embrace and continue to develop throughout their lives. Schools are located all over the world and in all types of circumstances, but what if they were all places where students had opportunities to explore and discover and not worry about grades or exams? What if schools devoted time for students to uncover their passions? What if we nurtured curiosity and looked at each child as an individual and worked with them to plan their learning, based on their own passions and needs? There is time enough for developing expert skills and knowledge once students are older and have a better sense of what they would like to take further.

This week's reflective prompt has raised more questions than answers, but I know now with greater certainty that our traditional school system does not work. There must be a different way.

1 During the interview Dr Perryman referred to her own research that suggests that Ofsted inspections can cause great stress for teachers and school leaders as a poor evaluation may mean a loss of jobs and students being pulled from schools. Such high stakes often encourages schools to prepare for inspection, making decisions based on what is best for a good evaluation and not necessarily what is best for the school or students. Another issue with the Ofsted system is the variability of the inspection teams and the personal bias that is brought into an inspection. She also found fault with the notion that 'value-added' by a school is ignored and that factors such as the socio-economic background for the school's population is not taken into account.

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