PISA-badge-of-honour or lifelong-learner-skills: Which do we value more?

IMG_0118There was such a flurry of edu-activity this week, headlines like these shouted from the pages of newspapers, or the modern-day media news equivalent:

“China’s poorest students outperform <insert modern developed nation>’s wealthiest in international maths test”

For example…

UK: TES and The Independent

Canada’s: The Globe and Mail

As I was driving home one afternoon this week, the news radio host was discussing how the children of Shanghai’s waste removal managers (garbos) apparently achieved higher score than our own dear Australian children. Now that Finland has slipped off the edu-radar, now the edu-bureaucrats are beating a path to Shanghai.

The (UK) Independent: Education Minister to travel to Shanghai to find out secrets behind maths scores

Well, actually Shanghai have been doing so for the past few years. When Finland was on top of the PISA tree I attended a briefing session from the Finnish Board of Education in Helsinki. It was noted in the presentation that South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai had spent considerable time and resources sending teams to do the same. The PISA-engine spawns an entire industry.

There are the high stakes in this high stakes testing. International test comparisons create an unhealthy competition to be at the top of the rankings. As a result, learning becomes disconnected from a meaningful reality. The testing regime fuels the fear of parents and grows the coaching industry. Recently a colleague was telling me about a senior high school student who had accepted a place at a selective high school. Once enrolled, the student was required to reassure them that she would attend classes. Apparently, many students in selective high schools don’t regularly attend school,  their main focus is after school coaching, school is irrelevant.

To provide a reality check on the situation in Shanghai, The Guardian/The Observer painted a different picture: Nine hour tests and lots of pressure: Welcome to the Chinese school system – From the article:

Chinese parents and educators see their own system as corrupt, dehumanising, pressurised and unfair.

Many parents consider the gruelling nine-hour test [college admission exam] a sorting mechanism that will determine the trajectory of their children’s lives.

As long as China’s education system remains vast but resource-constrained its schools will default to testing as a reliable indicator of competence.

Nearly half of Shanghai’s school-age children belong to migrant families and were effectively barred from taking the test

Although students from 12 provinces took the test in 2009, the government only shared Shanghai’s scores.

One recently retired teacher at a Beijing middle school said she earns extra money by teaching an after-school cramming course called maths olympiad

If we look only to scores in international tests, we are ignoring the breadth of learning and the reason for education and the important contribution that schools play in raising and equipping the next generation. As Lao Kaisheng, a professor in the education department of Beijing Normal University stated:

“The education system here puts a heavy emphasis on rote memorisation, which is great for students’ test-taking ability but not for their problem-solving and leadership abilities or their interpersonal skills,” he said. “Chinese schools just ignore these things.”

The previous Australian Prime Minister wanted to link reform of the school funding system to student performance in international tests, setting the goal for Australia of being among the top five nations in reading, maths and science by 2025.

I believe this aspiration is at the cost of developing problem-solving and leadership abilities or their interpersonal skills, the skills our young people need for success in a changing world, those skills that are essential for bringing solutions to big problems our world faces.

In this one area, I take an either/or position, I’m fairly certain that we either build a generation of innovative, creative leaders, or help them pass tests, so that we can wear the PISA-badge-of-honour.


The story of a (probably) ‘naughty’ boy: Seek first to understand


It’s not a term I use. The word ‘naughty’ doesn’t solve anything or help anyone. It has become one of those general descriptors, a label. Back when I completed my Masters of Education I specialised in behaviour. I have always found the way that humans act and respond to circumstances as fascinating. At the time I concluded that every behaviour displayed is usually there for a reason. Our job as educators is to find that out.

2ofusOn the weekend I read yet another story of a young person who found that he didn’t seem to fit at school*. ‘2 of Us’ is a regular column in my newspaper’s Saturday supplement. Will and his mother, Barbara, told their story. I was particularly interested in Will’s story, a young person with unique talent that didn’t seem to fit at school.

Barbara was raising her three children on her own. From her own description of him, Will seemed very challenging:

Will was definitely not the teacher’s pet. He spent a lot of time standing outside the classroom door or headmaster’s office – just for trivial things, nothing serious… I drove him to school every day of his life  - otherwise he would never have been there on time.

His early life was dogged by poor eyesight that was undetected until he put on a pair of magnifiers and then his whole world changed.

Will’s remarkable talent for music began to show. Not only a remarkable guitarist, but he was a master at Guitar Hero, in a music shop she discovered:

He was able to play the guitar faster and faster, without missing a note and ended up with a whole group of people watching.

Will showed a talent for music and technology. At one stage he also became an under-12 rollerblading champion. It was around this time that Barbara saw his disconnection from school:

A teacher at [his] High School told me that it was a shame Will didn’t apply himself to his schoolwork because he could do anything he wanted to.

The irony of the situation is that he was doing what he wanted, and music and technology was the spark that started his remarkable career. He changed to another school, but left before completing his final year. However, he had been visiting music clubs and taken it upon himself to arrange lessons.

Today Will is an extraordinary music producer. He is producing tracks for some of the most famous people in the industry. Recently he toured 30 American cities and made a seven week tour of Europe with his music.

My dream is that school is a place for all young people to thrive. That instead of Will, and young people like him, seeking his inspiration outside of school, they would be inspired and excited to be at school. The learning, the physical environment and the style of teaching should converge to create the perfect storm for learning – with the capacity of meeting the interests and learning styles of all students.

Perhaps then we may see those described as ‘naughty’ as engaged, inspired and able to pursue their passion. And school would be a place with the tools, technology and flexibility to make it happen.


*I know that there are always other perspectives to a story, but I’m just going with what I read in this article.

The Article: 2 of us 

A story of a young girl’s dream. How do we help our kids to reach for the stars?

Driving to work the other morning I was streaming a BBC Radio 4 series Loose Ends, I started listening to the program as host, Clive Anderson was introducing his next guest. Her story captivated me.

Maggie struggled at school, she was dyslexic, reading and writing was a challenge. She described her experiences at school,  “I was up the back of the class with the safety scissors and the glitter. I was very disenfranchised”. Maggie went to 13 different schools.

Image‘Maggie’ is Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE, Research fellow University College London and a space scientist, building satellites that go up in space, and a science communicator, translating the complexities of science into a simple format for everybody to understand. Her degree was in physics and PhD in mechanical engineering, the perfect match for making satellites.

Today, Maggie is the host of the BBC TV program The Sky at Night, one of BBC’s longest running programs. She has recently taken over as host since the death of the long-standing and much-respected host, Dr Patrick Moore.

As a young child Maggie had always wanted to go into space, after watching the children’s program The Clangers. Despite her learning difficulties, she always had a dream about science and space.

In the interview she said,

Then I started doing science classes and I remember distinctly when the teacher asked a question, I put up my hand, I looked around the class and no one else had put up their hand, so I put mine down because I was the dumb one. “Then I thought, no, give it a try” and I got the answer right. If you have a dream or desire, it can carry you through and make you determined to succeed.

At school, Maggie didn’t feel encouraged to pursue her dream to be a scientist.

That’s one of my arguments with teaching. I think we should get people to aspire, to reach the stars, to aim very high. I think sometimes they fear that and say, oh no, well Maggie, why don’t you go into nursing? Nursing is a wonderful profession but I don’t think that was what I was cut out for. So I think we should get kids to aspire and have dreams. To overcome the hurdles and I think if you have a dream you can do that.

Maggie knew how to work the system:

The last school I went to the teachers asked me “what stream should you be in, the upper stream or the lower stream?” I said, “Yeah, definitely the upper stream,” because it is so much easier to get transferred down, than it is to get transferred up. So I just blagged my way in, really, an opportunist.

How do we help to make school the place that gives oxygen to the dreams and aspirations that every child . Maggie had a strong sense determination, she knew what she wanted to do. Her circumstances (13 schools) probably meant she didn’t have that one teacher that could share the journey and nurture and encourage her dreams, but she did it anyway.

Can we counter Maggie’s argument with teaching:

  • Know our students
  • Listen to the things that make their eyes sparkle when they talk
  • Provide opportunities for them to pursue their dreams
  • Make the path smooth

And most importantly, let’s make school the place where dreams can flourish.



Bio information

BBC Radio 4: Loose Ends, broadcast Saturday 8 February

I am an ocean swimmer: 6 key things I learnt about myself along the way

I am an ocean swimmer.The Course

When I started on this journey about three months ago I faced a couple of mountains – raising $1250 for cancer research and swimming 1km in the North Bondi Classic. The first mountain was quickly climbed, through the generosity of many, together we raised more than $1700. The second mountain was well and truly conquered today.

Back in November, I could barely swim 200m as I stopped and puffed along the way. For the last couple of weeks, leading up to this event I wanted to over-train and swim 1.5km.

How did that happen?

It’s been an interesting journey. I knew that this was a mental and emotional challenge, as much as a physical one. At the start I set myself three words: challenge, persevere and complete. I know myself well, these three concepts address the key areas of growth I needed:

Take up a challenge. Undertake an activity that you know is a mountain.

Persevere along the way and even enjoy it.

And complete. Today I reached this and it feels great. Pre-race coach briefing

What have I learnt about myself?

1. I like feeling fit: I am now looking at what I am going to do next, as the water gets cold, heading into autumn and winter. Having a fitness goal also has an impact on other aspects of life – diet, sleep and priorities. I have also found that fitness gives mental clarity.

2. I am motivated by a big goal: The idea of swimming 1km was very scary. But I tackled it with perseverance and setting achievable sub goals. I wanted to be able to swim 600m by Christmas, 800m by new year and 1km by Australia Day (26 Jan). After that  I stepped it up and I can now swim 1.5km.

3. I respond to accountability: The wonderful people who supported me financially by contributing to cancer research were never far from my mind. There were times I didn’t want to go to training, or felt like stopping short during a session, but I remembered what they had done. It wasn’t about me.

4. I don’t have to win to succeed: I have a tendency to choose to do things where I know I can succeed. In this challenge my focus has been on achieving my best and realising that success isn’t necessarily being at the front of the pack.

5. I am determined: Once I hit a rhythm with my swimming a new sense of determination set in. It was probably around the 800m mark in my goal-achieving that I realised 1km was achievable. When I went back to work after the summer vacation, we were up and at the harbour beach near us before the sun was actually up and then off to work.

6. I can win the mental game: This was one of the biggest challenges I overcame. I began to actually enjoy the headspace of swimming. It took a while to get over the moaning “when will this finish” to finding it motivating. Even this week, as I had a particularly challenging day at work, my swim was a helpful place to process. I wanted to get to the place where I became lost in my thoughts as I swam, and I did.

Team Knock
So a big thank you to all my friends, sponsors and encouragers who kept me going on the journey. Especially grateful to my wonderful husband, alongside me all the way.


Starting the year at NBCS: Putting the F.U.N in PD to build a positive culture of collaboration and connection.

We all knew it was coming.  It's a building site

At the end of 2013, as the school year was finishing, the construction (and demolition) crews were coming into NBCS. Project Barcelona, the much awaited development of transforming the physical space of ‘school’ into a whole new model was underway. The brief that principal Stephen Harris gave to the architect was to create a new heart of the school that provided a space for learning, connection and social interaction.

When the staff returned a week before the school year started they would see the
Barcelona Airport
significant disruption that Project Barcelona would potentially bring to their routines, the construction site is of significant proportions in the middle of the school campus:

Project Barcelona will define the heart and spine of the school campus and lead the way in new innovative learning. (WMK, Architect)

The inspiration came from Barcelona Airport, with its large canopy overarching the activity within. 

Under these conditions it is essential that staff commence the year with a positive frame of mind and then model and reinforce this to their students. It was going to be a challenging year and a half, but the outcome will be worth it.

What are the challenges facing the school’s community?

  • The hoarding erected around the perimeter of the site creates an inner ring of corridors, interspersed with viewing windows.

  • There are only two ways to get around from one side of the school to the other… the long way or the long way.

  • Perceived loss of gathering spaces (and toilets) for students

  • Significant rooming changes due to demolished buildings

  • The knowledge that this project won’t be completed until the second half of 2015

  • Noise, trucks, workers, dust.

This is not a scenario for the faint-hearted! It was important to be clear of the outcomes of the beginning of year staff PD Days:

  • Set a positive attitude for the year ahead

  • Staff to model this positive/can do approach to students

  • Staff are still able teach innovatively and collaboratively

  • Build the culture that we are all in this together

Stephen Harris devised a series of collaborative activities that would build community, get people working together, know their way around the school, make a contribution to enhancing the physical environment, tackle the pressing issues and, most importantly, have fun.

Each year at NBCS the week before school commences has a series of first gatherings

Day 1: Senior Leadership Team (SLT)

Day 2: Senior Leadership Team and School Executive Team (SET) – Learning Leaders and Stage/Grade Leaders

Day 3: All staff together.

This process began with the SLT. Stephen led the tour around the school, making note of toilet changes, learning space changes and the impact that these will have on the leadership of the school. And then the fun began.

The day before, he had created the first mural to brighten up the hoarding. It was an outline of himself. Then the SLT were placed in groups to devise a pitch that would build on this lonely figure to create something fun. Each group were to pitch their idea, Dragons Den style to the others. When the project was selected the SLT become the project team to make it a reality. This activity set the tone for creating a mural along the hoarding, but also put the SLT together within a collaborative project, working together on assigned roles and owning the outcome.

SLT Collaborative Project

The finished artwork

When SET arrived the next day the culture of fun and collaboration was underway. This larger group, together with SLT, about 40 people was set a different challenge for collaboration. Stephen presented a moderate budgetary allowance, to fund a way to encourage staff and build morale. Using the Dragon’s Den method of pitching an idea, combined with the Athenian method of casting votes with broken pieces of a clay pot, each group set to work. The composition of the groups were random, an important element of building community across the school. The winning group’s idea was selected after the old pots were smashed and each of us voted using a piece of clay.

On the third day of the series, the fun really began. Within a 90 minute time frame mixed groups of primary, secondary, admin and SLT were presented with the challenge:

Choose at least 3 of these activities and complete within 1.5 hour timeframe

Physical challenge: determine the fastest way your team can go on a lap of the short stay car park. Timed as a relay circuit. I'm pretty good at riding that chair

Art challenge: comedic / fun interpretation of some aspect of school life on a construction panel

Artists at work

Lego challenge: create a representation of a building at NBCS

Working with Lego

Photo challenge: photograph your team in an outrageous location or activity on site

The photo challenge

Film challenge: create a 60 second video advertising any aspect of the NBCS site as a holiday destination. Watch Steve Collis’ NBCS Caving Adventure on YouTube

The creativity that came out of the activity was amazing. The fun laughter and energy around the school was contagious, as people gathered art materials, film props, snuck into construction vehicles for photos and raced around the carpark. Along the way people learn new skills from their colleagues.

The initial outcomes were definitely achieved, but the greatest outcome was an incredible sense of community and connection amongst the staff. The newest teachers immediately felt like part of the community and we all had new and shared experiences that we could laugh about. In addition to these, there were team-based activities directly related to the work for the year.

Once the students arrived there was an atmosphere of excitement for what lay ahead.

How did the staff at your school year start?

How are you reinforcing your culture of community and collaboration?


Multi-level schools for multi-level living: 7 lessons from great cities around the world (and lots of pics)

Living room comfortLook around at the places where people gather: shopping malls, offices, hotel lobbies, pubs. All these places are seeking to make an environment that make people want to return. At my local mall there are numerous ‘living room’ areas for people to sit, meet and wait. The design of these new communities are multi-level, spacious and use colour and lighting to create the right atmosphere. The designers thought about the way people move around, to see more, stay longer and presumably purchase more.

primary school 3The traditional Australian school has a wide, broad footprint, reflecting the spaciousness of our land. Usually, they are single or double storey buildings, opening onto a covered verandah overlooking a play area. This means there are often fewer corridors to herd the students along.

However, in many cities today, the medium to high density housing market is booming, bringing families into the city and apartment living. As a result schools in these areas are bursting at the seams. Many of us live in multi-level cities, but are reluctant to think about multi-level schools school.

I have visited multi-storey schools in a number of cities around the world. Older cities like New York, London, Amsterdam need schools where the people are and the people are in the older parts of the city, but even in new developments in Manchester, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Auckland schools are designed to go ‘up’ rather than ‘out’.

What does it mean to rethink how we design schools in Australia? Here are some ideas from around the world, schools and libraries I have visited on SCIL Vision Tours that may provide insight into rethinking the design of school.

Multi-level schools: Often designed around an atrium, these schools open the learning, giving a sense of space within. The spaces for learning are wide, multi-age and/or large cohorts often share an entire floor.

Shared open social spaces: One of the most common elements of multi-level schools are the social/meeting/eating spaces, where the whole community are welcome, without barriers that separate staff spaces from student spaces.

Stairs as a focal point and gathering place: In a number of schools and libraries the stairs are designed to be more than the means of travelling between levels. Wide stairs area enable free flow of movement of large numbers of students and also serve as gathering places for the community.

Spaces within spaces: These smaller spaces enable groups to work on a project, individuals to get into their own headspace and they also can create a sense of fun. A large open space can be broken up with smaller spaces.

Open movement areas and wide corridors extend the learning areas: Corridors have traditionally been considered the efficient means for movement, but are often an inefficient use of valuable space for learning. Make them wide, accessible and part of the learning area.

Light, colour, comfort: Each of these require attention. Designing a space that enables the students to see outside, to see sky and trees and to work in natural light helps everyone’s mood. Similarly, bringing colour through lighting, wall colours, murals or glass panels adds vibrancy.

Many of us like to choose the location and the furniture for the task, it is the same with students. A variety of furniture types provides students with choice. This will mean that all students may not be facing the front, which begs the question, “Do we really need a front at all?”

The People matter: A well-designed school is the starting point, creating the right culture and supporting the students and teachers in the use of the space is essential. Here are a few key areas that require deliberate planning and careful execution to make the transition:

  • Creating a collaborative work and learning culture
  • Rethinking the role of the teacher
  • Simple and reliable technology
  • Leadership that communicates vision




If… “Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than IQ” …then what will you change in your school?


Have you heard these statements?

A parent may say “I like Mr X for my son’s teacher, he is a good disciplinarian.”

What about this advice to a new teacher: “Don’t smile for the first month, and you will be able to discipline them for the year.”

One of our greatest responsibilities as educators is to create an environment where self-discipline can flourish, and in so doing, provide life long benefits for our students.

What matters in building self confidence:

  • Students need to develop self-discipline as a life long habit
  • Willpower acts like a muscle that strengthens self-discipline
  • Stressful and discouraging situations drain willpower
  • Willpower is fuelled by warmth, kindness and appreciation

A disciplinarian-style teacher might have a quiet classroom, with well-behaved students, when they are contained within that environment, but it doesn’t help them in the long-term if they aren’t given the opportunity to become intrinsically motivated and drive their own learning:

Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than IQ.
(Duckworth and Seligman - See notes”)

Martin Seligman and fellow researcher Angela Duckworth made this finding in their 2004 research in a longitudinal study of 140 eighth-grade students. The research discovered that under achievement was a failure to exercise self-discipline and that students who displayed greater self-discipline had fewer absences, spent more time on self-directed work and watched less TV.

The traditional models of education, that support passive learning and teacher as keeper of content may focus on extrinsically applied discipline within that particular context, but this isn’t the same as ‘self-discipline’. Willpower is the habit for success and the fuel for self-discipline.

Mark Muraven, Associate Professor of Psychology, University at Albany, NY State conducted research into willpower and came up with some interesting findings (see Notes for more information). He discovered that willpower can get used up like fuel and that treating people with warmth and consideration actually builds willpower stamina.

Muraven says in The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business (Duhigg, 2012).

When people are asked to do something that takes self-control, they think they are doing it for personal reasons – if they feel there is a choice or something they enjoy because it helps someone else – it’s much less taxing. If they feel they have no autonomy, if they are just following orders, their willpower muscles get tired much faster… when the students were treated like cogs, rather than people, it took a lot more willpower.

Many parents prefer a school or a particular teacher because of a reputation for keeping students in line, for attention to rules and regulation, and providing lots of homework. They will often say “they have good discipline” – but is it the right type of discipline. Self-discipline can look messy and it can be used as an excuse for accepting rowdy behaviour, but when used effectively it is a powerful tool that sets up our young people for success later in life.


References and Notes:

Duckworth and Selgman “Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents” 2004 http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~duckwort/images/PsychologicalScienceDec2005.pdf

Muraven’s research, from The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business (Duhigg, 2012).

1. Cookies and Radishes: Two groups of students were asked only to eat the food assigned to them – cookies or radishes. You can imagine, the cookie eaters were in heaven and radish eaters in agony. After this they were each given a difficult puzzle to complete. The cookie-eaters with their unused reservoirs of willpower were relaxed, they persevered, tried different approaches to completing the puzzle. The radish-eaters, on the other hand, had their willpower thoroughly taxed. They became frustrated and started to complain about the puzzle

2. Just Cookies: Again, there were two groups of students, each with a plate of warm cookies in front of them this time, but the instructions were different. The first group were treated kindly, “We ask that you please don’t eat the cookies. Is that OK?” The researcher then explained the project goals and requested feedback on the experiment and thanked them for contributing their time.

The second group were treated more rudely, “You must not eat the cookies. We’ll start now.” They weren’t given an explanation of the goals, appreciated nor was there any interest in feedback on the experiment.

Each group had to ignore the cookies for 5 minutes after the researcher left the room. Non one gave into temptation. Then the participants were given a computer task. The first group did well on computer task. They were able to maintain focus for the 12 minutes, they had willpower to spare. However, the second group were tired and less-focused. Their willpower muscle had been fatigued by the instructions.