Talking Teaching

December 9, 2013

shaking up the academy? or how the academy could shake up teaching

Last week I spent a couple of days down in Wellington, attending the annual symposium for the Ako Aotearoa Academy. The Academy’s made up of the winners of the national Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards, so there are around 150 or so of us now. While only 35 members were able to make it to this year’s event (& the executive committee will survey everyone to see if there’s a better time – having said that, everyone seems so busy that there’s probably no date that would suit everyone!), we had a great line-up of speakers & everyone left feeling inspired & energised. I’ll blog about several of those presentations, but thought I would start with one by Peter Coolbear, who’s the director of our parent body, Ako Aotearoa.

Peter began by pointing out that the Academy is potentially very influential – after all, it’s made up of tertiary teachers recognised at the national level for the quality of their teaching, & who foster excellence in learning & teaching at their own institutions.  But he argued – & I agree with him – that there is room for us to become involved in the wider scene. Peter had a number of suggestions for us to consider.

First up, there’s a lot going on in the area of policy – are there areas where the Academy might be expected to have & express an opinion? For example

  • There’s the latest draft of the Tertiary Education Strategy (TES), which “sets out the Government’s long-term strategic direction for tertiary education; and its current and medium-term priorities for tertiary education.” There’s a link to the Minister’s speech announcing the launch of the draft strategy here.
  • In addition, the State Services Commission’s document Better Public Services: results for New Zealanders sets out 10 targets across 5 areas. Targets 5 & 6 are relevant here as they are a reference point for government officials looking at evidence for success in the education sector. (Such scrutiny is likely to become more intense in light of the 2012 PISA results, which have just been made public.) Target 5 expects that we’ll “[increase] the proportion of 18-year-olds with NCEA level 2 or equivalent qualification”; #6 is looking for an increase in ” the proportion of 25 to 34-year-olds with advanced trade qualifications, diplomas and degrees (at level 4 or above)”. This will increase the pressure on institutions to increase retention & completion rates – might this have an effect on standards?
  • There’s also the requirement to achieve parity of success for ‘priority’ learners, especially Maori & Pasifika – this is priority #3 in the TES. (Kelly Pender, from Bay of Plenty Polytech, gave an inspirational presentation on how he weaves kaupapa Maori into pretty much everything he does in his classroom, in an earlier session.) And it’s an important one for us to consider. Peter cited data from the Ministry of Education’s website, ‘Education Counts’, which showed significantly lower completion rates for Maori & Pasifika students in their first degrees compared to European students, and commented that this will likely become a major issue for the universities in the near future.
  • If we’re to meet those achievement requirements, then how institutions scaffold learners into higher-level study, through foundation & transition programs, will become increasingly important. What are the best ways to achieve this?
  • Peter predicted increased accountability for the university sector (including governance reform). Cycle 5 of NZ’s Academic Audits has begun, and “is to be framed around academic activities related to teaching and learning and student support.” This is definitely one I’d expect Academy members to have an opinion on!
  • He also expects strengthened quality assurance processes throughout the education sector: this suggests a stronger (& more consistent) role for the  NZ Qualifications Authority, with the development of partnership dialogues across the sector (ie including universities).

Then, at the level of the providers (ie the educational institutions themselves – & that’s not just the polytechs & universities), we have:

  • a targeted review of qualifications offered at pre-degree level – there’s background information here;
  • a government-led drive to get more learners into the ‘STEM’ subjects (science, technology, engineering, & maths) – this poses some interesting challenges as, at university level, we’re seeing quite a few students who’ve not taken the right mix of subjects, at the right NCEA level, to go directly into some of the STEM papers they need for, say, an engineering degree;
  • the rise in Massive Open On-line Courses, or MOOCs. (I find these quite strange creatures as they are free to the student and typically attract very large enrolments, but also apparently have very low completion rates. What’s in them for the institution? A good way of offering ‘taster’ courses that hook students in?)
  • the likelihood that we will see the development of a system for professional accreditation of tertiary teachers (I’ve written about this previously and will write another post fairly soon, as accreditation was the subject of a thought-provoking session at the symposium);
  • how we achieve protection of academic standards – it’s possible that government policies (eg those linking funding to completion & retention rates) may result in a tendency to exclude of underprepared kids &/or lowering standards – neither is desirable but both are possible results of those policies.

That’s a big list and the Academy can’t do everything! So, what should it focus on? (This is not a rhetorical question – it would be great to get some discussion going.) The Academy, in the person of its members, is effectively a resource; a body of expertise – can it become a ‘go-to’ body for advice? Speaking personally I think we need to make that shift; otherwise we remain invisible outside our individual institutions & the teaching-focused activities we’re involved in, & in a politicised world that’s not a comfortable thing to be. Can we, for example, better promote the significance of teaching excellence outside the education sector? Become involved in the discussions around & development of any accreditation scheme? Develop position papers around maintaining teaching excellence in the context of the new TES?

What do you think? And what shall we, collectively, do about it?

December 5, 2013

nz’s pisa rankings slip, & the soul-searching begins

Filed under: education, science teaching — Tags: , , , , — alison @ 11:06 am

The latest PISA results are out, and NZ – despite remaining in the ‘above the average’ group for OECD countries – has nonetheless  slipped in this measure of achievement in reading, maths administered by the Programme for International Student Assessment . This is of concern, & there are probably multiple complex causes for our decline. Certainly the previous PISA commentary (2009) recommended that we pay attention to matters of inequality (There’s interesting commentary here, & also on the RNZ website.)

This morning’s Dominion-Post (I’m in Wellington at the moment, at a teaching symposium) carries a story giving a primary-teaching perspective.There are two key issues here: many primary teachers lack a science or maths background; and primary teachers in general are not well supported to teach these specialist sujects. (The removal of specialist science advisors - something I’ve commented on previously – did not help things.) This is important, because if students don’t gain a good understanding of these subjects – and good experiences of them! – during primary school, then they’ll basically be playing catch-up when they arrive in specialist secondary school classrooms.  Sir Peter Gluckman’s suggestion (in his report Looking ahead: science education in the 21st century) that each primary school have a ‘science champion’ would help here, but in the medium-to-long term it would probably be even better if intending primary school teachers received much greater exposure to the STEM subjects to begin with.

Should we worry? Yes, but I definitely agree with Fiona Ell, from the University of Auckland, who’s quoted in this morning’s Herald as saying:

People get very hung up on the ranking … because it’s like a Top of the Pops top 10 thing. I don’t think they should be ignored … but knee-jerk reactions to rankings are really dangerous in education systems.

So, there are issues that we need to address, and as Fiona’s pointed out, there are no quick fixes – we need to deal with them in a considered way that includes as many variables as possible (i.e. not just practices in schools).

One of those issues is highlighted by Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Science Adviser, who’s said:

What’s worrying is that there seems to have been a decline in the people represented in the top end of the scale and an increase in the number of people at the bottom end of the scale.

And socioeconomic status may well play a part in this. From the Herald story:

New Zealand was one of just two countries in which socio-economic status had a strong connection to a student’s performance. Some countries’ education systems made up for social disadvantage, but this was not the case in New Zealand.

So any solution addressing the PISA results will of necessity be complex. It’s not going to be sufficient to look only at what’s going on in schools. Yes, support and professional development for STEM teaching across the compulsory sector will be needed. The quality of teaching is definitely important (for a student’s perspective see the Herald article). But without also seriously considering and attempting to deal with the social inequalities in this country, I suspect changes in the educational sector alone will not be enough.

May 28, 2012

what’s the academy *for*?

There’s a trend – a trend that is worthwhile & not before time – to recognise excellence among tertiary teachers. (Where ‘tertiary’ = beyond the compulsory education sector, which is so much wider than ‘just’  universities.) In New Zealand we have the national Tertiary Teaching Excellence Awards, which recognise & encourage excellence. These awards are funded by the Tertiary Education Commission and managed and administered by Ako Aotearoa, and winners become members of the Ako Aotearoa Academy.

Anyway, I was talking with a group of colleagues on Friday, & one of the topics of conversation was, what’s the Academy for? What does it do?

Well, if you follow that last link, & then peruse the various sections & links on the Academy page, you’ll find it does quite a lot, both for its members & also to foster excellence in learning & teaching across the tertiary education sector: workshops, teaching tools & narratives, the annual symposium for academy members (which is a most excellent event), and a range of member contributions.

All this truly is wonderful stuff – and yet, there’s something that worries me. Because, outside the sector, both Ako Aotearoa & the Academy have, well, quite a low profile. I believe there is a risk – especially in the current economic climate – of the Academy in particular being seen as something of an echo-chamber for the teaching elite, with the associated question: why, in tight financial times, should it continue to be funded? Having a lowish profile is Not Good in these circumstances, because it means that there are few people outside the Academy & Ako Aotearoa who would argue for its continued existence, or mourn its disappearance.

Which would be a pity. Because, having a body of expert teachers actively sharing that expertise means that, over time (& alongside other Ako activities), knowledge that contributes to enhanced teaching practices will spread. Because, when that happens, so too will learning and learners’ experiences be enhanced, so that society can be ever more sure that those learners are prepared for what the 21st century can throw at them. Because, we have so much to contribute (the current debate on what constitutes excellence in secondary school teaching springs to mind).

It’s just that somehow, at the moment, we’re just not very good at getting that across.

May 21, 2012

how much do we value our teachers?

Filed under: education — Tags: , , , — alison @ 9:41 pm

Here in New Zealand I find that topics related to education (its quality, delivery, cost & so on) are never far from the headlines. So I’ve been following the various media reports on class sizes and performance pay for teachers with considerable interest. This afternoon I was sent a link to an article in the National Business Review – the article itself was quite… interesting (surely the number of teachers in this country hasn’t increased from 10-11,000 to 52,500 over the last decade? Why didn’t the reporter question that statement?), but it’s something in the comments thread that I’d like to address here.  ‘Anonymous’ remarked that

Police should get a lot more pay than teachers. They put their lives on the line every day , they have to deal with some of the worst members of our society on a daily basis , they work 8 fullon hours each day and usually 10 hours(with no extra pay) unlike teachers who have plenty of free time , they work shift work which is very disruptive to family life and they only get the 20 days holiday each year that most workers get . Compared to those in the police,school teachers have the good life believe me…..

I agree, members of our police force do all of this & earn every cent of their salaries. But I can’t agree with the implication that teachers, & the job teachers do, are somehow less valuable to society. Just how much value do we place, should we place, on those people society expects to prepare our young people for the increasingly complex demands of the world beyond school?

We need to remember, too, that in some cases teachers’ lives are also on the line.

And I must strongly disagree with the statement that teachers get ‘plenty of free time’. I’ve worked with an awful lot of dedicated, highly skilled teachers over the years since I moved back to university from my own secondary school classroom, and both my experiences & theirs belie that ‘free time’ statement. Teachers spend around 5 hours a day actually in the classroom, with up to 30+ students at a time (with the possibility of more, under the changes recently flagged by the Ministry). Typically there are meetings before & after school, & grounds duty on a rostered basis – and let’s not forget that a teacher doesn’t ‘just’ teach in a particular subject area but spends time on things like pastoral care as well.

The extra-curricular activities that add so much richness to students’ school experiences wouldn’t be possible if teachers didn’t offer their services in lunch breaks, after school, in weekends & holidays: something for which they don’t get extra pay, either, and which – from personal experience – can also be very disruptive to family life. (The NZ International Biology Olympiad teams, for example, owe their considerable success to the fact that classroom teachers give up evenings, weekends & holidays to coach, assess & mentor them.) And then there’s the marking, lesson-planning, report-writing, keeping up with all the other paperwork, parent-teacher interviews, all of which chews into the evenings & weekends, & those on-the-face-of-it generous ‘holidays’ as well.

Free time on a daily basis? I don’t think so.

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