The Age School Summit

Reflecting on COVID-19 and looking to the future

And so to The Age Schools Summit in Melbourne via the rail replacement bus service from Ballarat. The event had to be cancelled last year and so is effectively in its second year after the inaugural summit in 2019.

After acknowledgement of country and a few welcomes, the first speaker was James Merlino, the Victorian education minister. He began what was going to be a running theme of reminiscences about remote learning - to the extent that I wondered if, in time, we will start to look back on it fondly. He then spoke about the Victorian government’s tutoring programme and a range of other equity issues. In the Q&A session after his talk, he attributed Australia’s long decline in literacy and numeracy to factors such as a lack of specialist maths teachers, the challenges of staffing rural and remote schools and changes in the prerequisites set by universities. He also suggested maths needs to be more engaging, which worried me a little, but overall gave a good account of himself.

Then Karen Money from the the Victorian education department gave a 20-minute keynote on the tutoring programme that lasted for 30-minutes, which meant the first panel discussion was somewhat curtailed. The conference organisers had set up an online system for posting questions to speakers and I posted one to Money about whether tutors would be required to use evidence-informed practices. We never had time for that.

The panel discussion that followed was about experiences of COVID-19, with teachers and a highly articulate student relating their stories. Following that, Jen Buchanan of the Future Schools alliance spoke about the future of education and that kind of thing. A number of problems were posed, such as that 25% of of students miss a month of school (I didn’t write down over what timescale). I got the sense that the solution was to abandon the ATAR system of university rankings - we are apparently the only education system that ranks students - but I wasn’t sure what else we needed to do.

I had been invited to the summit in order to speak on one of the panels. I knew time was short. We had 40 minutes and four panelists, with one of those panelists being John Hattie. So, I resolved to make two points, one about the evidence for explicit teaching and the other about the lack of evidence for differentiation. When I first had the opportunity to speak, I was pretty brief and raised a couple of laughs.

The panel then moved on and Hattie talked about the need to avoid polarisation in the debate about teaching methods, as well as arguing that explicit teaching is needed to teach narrow, academic knowledge but that other outcomes need other methods. With the clock running down, I began to wonder if I would have another chance to speak. So, when I was asked about students dropping out of school, I replied that motivation is related to success, at least reciprocally and there is some evidence that success precedes motivation. Therefore, one way of preventing students dropping out was to teach them really well so they felt success. I then went on to clarify that explicit teaching is a whole system going from ‘I do’ to ‘we do’ to ‘you do’ and not a single episode, and I made my point about differentiation i.e. that it is in the teaching standards but nobody seems to know where the supporting evidence is.

There were a few more questions but that was basically it from me. I think Hattie made a point about the need to teach collaborative skills, Andrew McConchie of Geelong High talked about how he helped turn around his previous school, which included steps such as a rigorous planned curriculum and direct instruction, and Shan Christensen of Huntingtower talked about teaching for understanding and growth mindset. However, it can be tricky to follow people who are speaking on the same panel as you are.

After a break, there was a panel on progressing the profession that focused on staff wellbeing. This essentially previewed a presentation by Jordana Hunter of the Grattan Institute about the precious resource of teacher time. Grattan is running a research project on this topic and one of the issues Hunter addressed was the idea of shared planning. I nodded my head:

Then Alan Tudge, the relatively new federal education minister, rocked up and gave a speech suggesting we should be more like England. He even mentioned a ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum that is streamlined, coherent and focused - let’s see what Thursday’s release of a draft new Australian Curriculum will bring. Will it emphasise content knowledge or abstract nouns?

Tudge’s talk probably went down like a lead balloon with most of those in the room, but I found myself nodding approvingly at times. His central claim was that you can spend more money on education without improving outcomes - which is essentially true - and so he now wanted to focus more on teaching and the curriculum. He seemed to suggest that current, practising teachers should be more involved in the training of new teachers and perhaps take the lead.

I suspect many present would have resented Tudge’s focus on improving on what they would see as the narrow measure of PISA. However, I would ask what real and significant improvements in an education system would not impact PISA results? I think it’s as valid a goal as any, particularly for a politician.

The main disadvantage Tudge is working under is that most of the levers to deliver the improvements he wants to see lie with state education minister like Merlino so he 1) has to be judicious in his use of the levers he does possess and 2) persuade the state education ministers to get on board. We’ll see how that goes.

I didn’t fancy being on a rail replacement bus service in rush hour so I left shortly after that.