In one of the many fantastic staffroom chats I get to have every week at HPSS there is one that keeps coming back to me. Last week I was chatting to my lovely colleague Heemi McDonald (make sure you read his blog) about the growing regularity of school leader meetings I seem to be sitting in on where educators are voicing concerns about increasing numbers of students coming in with more learning needs than before. Principals now more than ever are struggling with meeting the diverse needs of young children and young adults with increasingly complex needs. I myself have engaged in discussion where we have tried to find the source of these "issues". Is it the development in medicine that has seen more premature babies survive who may have experienced all kinds of complications? Is the increased screen time? Is it the sugar and processed food? The increasing amount of time toddlers spend in daycare?? The reasons, and ultimately the excuses, for children not being "ready" are endless.
All to often these discussions end up making me feel uneasy. They feel like (though not necessarily intentionally) that they are looking to place blame on the child and society and fail to ask what might be the real question - is the average school really 21st Century child ready? This was the seed Heemi planted when he challenged me and another colleague during this discussion. It was a genuine light bulb moment.
What are the measures we use when we assess "readiness"? A 2014 Education Review article outlined school readiness as "Ideally, a Year 0 student should be able to listen carefully to stories, follow instructions, sit quietly on the mat, raise hand to ask a question, put on shoes and jersey, put bag away, wash hands, sit and eat food at break times, pack bag and carry it, and so on." Seems fair enough. When we think of secondary school it is more about expecting a standardised level of literacy, numeracy and self-management. However what we seem to be presented with is increasingly complex issues ranging from poor hand writing, struggling to sit still, possible dyslexia through to behaviours associated with autism.
Or are we?
On one hand it seems to me that we are "diagnosing" students more than ever. I have been an English teacher for 20 years, and whilst we have always got students to do a bit of writing and maybe some close reading on entry, this was mostly skimmed over by some teachers and used to pick out the students who might have been directed into a "supported band" and some some ludicrous "top band". We are now entering a period where all educators are expected to be in constant state of inquiry, scanning, diagnosing and designing individualised interventions to ensure we are all getting our Vygotsky on and ensuring all learning is in the "zone of proximal development". Therefore, I have a hunch that part of the issue is that we now know and try to do more and therefore feel overwhelmed with who walks through our school doors. And unfortunately few, if any schools are using technology well to support this. This is could be a really interesting thing for us to focus on when talking about school resourcing. I believe this government is absolutely open to increasing funding of schools, they just need some serious data about where and why we should be prioritising the spending.
My second hunch is that a big part of the issue is that business (school) simply no longer meets the needs of the customer. It is not hard to find examples across many other industries of the many companies who have failed and folded as a result of not evolving quickly enough to meet the customers needs, such as Kodak who failed to respond to the digital revolution. The challenge for educators is that we are not a business, with businesses the failure is transparent as customers simply stop spending their money. With schools we are increasingly being lulled into a false sense of security. We don't physically lose customers because are an incredibly handy social construct - i.e. schools provide incredibly cheap and reliable babysitting and teen wrangling services. Students are not going to stop going to school because the produce or service are no longer fit for purpose, they are simply going to appear like they don't fit school, they are going to become harder to engage and possible even find it harder to succeed. We may not be physically losing customers, but I would argue that we are losing them on a mental and emotional level.
THE CHILD IS NOT THE PROBLEM. THE SCHOOL IS.
And before you get huffy, note I am not placing blame, I am simply making an observation. I am not placing blame because I recognise that meeting the changing demands of our young people is bloody hard. particularly when we have remained unchanged for such a long time. And it is beyond hard if you don't have a leader who appreciates this as a issue or as a challenge and/or you don't feel like you have the resourcing to make the necessary changes. Also we all need to have the smart tools that can may diagnostics and interventions more manageable. Heck I know many a change leader who struggles even when they have the vision required to evolve education.
But that said the most important tool in all of this is the teacher, or more precisely, the empathetic responsive teacher. By that I mean a teacher who simply believes each and every student is "school ready", simply by virtue of being present. The empathetic responsive teacher relishes the new literacies and the new capabilities that the 21st century child brings and is accepting of the challenges and differences they might also bring. So what if they aren't engaging in schooling in the same way that kids did five, ten or twenty years ago. Why the hell should we expect them to? I mean if I was a teenager now and forced to experience experience an education that felt like the high school equivalent of having to watch Phillip Sherry TV1 News every single night I'd be disengaged as well!
So if these hunches are true, what now?
In the short term I think we and in particular our school leaders needs to shift our perspective. Really asking ourselves - What is school for? Who is school for? Is what we are serving up actually fit for purpose? Then secondly, in longer term, I think we need to develop a clear vision of what a genuinely "fit for purpose school" (by that I mean what the students REALLY want and need, not a crusty academic's vision based on undoubtedly outdated mental models) and develop a detailed case for precision funding based on targeted professional development and genuinely smart tools for diagnostics and genuinely smart learning management systems that have inbuilt 21 century instructional built into it. I also think we can then make a real argument for funding reduced contact hours, especially if we have the smart tools that can demonstrate how we are using those non-contact hours to design genuinely personalised learning for every learner. I want to know what IBM Watson might look like in education? Imagine what our Spirals of Inquiry or Teaching as Inquiry could become! Bloody exiting times we live in.
I look forward to diving deeper into this thinking as I spend my coming week in Edinburgh at the International Summit of the Teaching Profession. You can follow the tweets here or by following the hashtag #ISTP2017.
I am also keen to hear your thoughts, your hunches and your solutions. I am keen to hear what you think it might take for teachers to not feel overwhelmed and to simply be an empathetic responsive educational leader and teacher.