The fast-paced world of education (and how to keep up)

April 2015

 

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Australia’s most innovative educator, Jenny Lewis, says that while shared best practice is useful in the pursuit of quality education provision, the local context must be taken into account. By JUDE BARBACK.

JennyLewis.jpgEvery country wants to increase its levels of student achievement. What is not always so clear, is how to do it.

We are in the throes of a period of great change – one in which the skills needed for an industrial age are being replaced with those needed for workplaces of the 21st century, skills that require critical and reflective thinking, creativity and collaboration.

At times of such change, education can suffer something akin to paralysis as educators scramble for the right approach to curriculum, the most appropriate form of assessment, and how to balance all this with rapidly changing technology. Jenny Lewis, new regional CEO for global education professional learning organisation Solution Tree, believes progress is being made with aspects like assessment, curriculum focus, and how technology can assist learning.

“It’s been quick, the pick-up of technology, but what hasn’t always been as clear is how it assists with learning,” says Lewis.

However, she believes this is changing and points to recent research by Michael Fullan and Geoff Scott as an example of how technology is starting to find a more embedded place within education. The paper discusses the way new pedagogies or “powerful new learning modes steeped in real world problem solving” are conducive to rapid developments in the use of technology for interactive learning.

Lewis also points out that New Zealand’s curriculum, like others, has already outlined the competencies we need; however, until recently there has been more emphasis on treating these competencies as processes, rather than outcomes.

She also thinks we are getting better at assessing critical learning skills, with new ways of assessing collaboration and critical thinking.

Blueprint for transformation

Lewis is well placed to offer such insights. Her resumé boasts a large number of prestigious positions and accolades are many and varied, including a plethora of fellowships, awards and directorships held in and beyond Australia. She was also listed as one of the top one hundred most creative and innovative people in Australia by
Bulletin magazine.

Yet, it is her time as teacher and principal of Noumea Primary School, a low socio-economic school in New South Wales, of which she speaks most passionately.

It was at Noumea Primary School that she, along with a team of “amazing” teachers, built a professional learning model that enabled its students, many the children of fifth-generation unemployed parents, to feel safe and realise they were active and capable learners.

The model included individual and collective ‘visioning’ for the school, a process which identified that traditional standardised testing wasn’t adding any real value and was therefore replaced with daily teacher judgements of student evidence, which proved to be a far more useful measure of student progress.

To support the school’s vision of a more evidenced-based approach to pedagogy, the school sought to better align its organisational values, addressing leadership models, resource allocation, and student grouping. Through a process of gathering and analysing data, and applying this to further strategy and innovation, the school underwent a significant transformation. Once identified as a “school at significant risk”, Noumea Primary School’s efforts were recognised at a national level, receiving two National Quality Teaching Awards. 

Lewis credits much of her success with leading the school’s transformation to being able to coteach during her leadership of the school. “It gave the opportunity to lead with and learn with others about leading a school with huge challenges.” 

Lewis’ experience at Noumea School provides an excellent case study for one school’s transformation; however, she cautions that what may work for one school, may not necessarily work for another, particularly for schools with different socio-economic, cultural and political factors. 

“Context and policy are really important,” she says. “Every education system wants to see an increase in student achievement, but how to get there is the key.”

Aligning education with economic need

Lewis believes an understanding of the relevant economic and social needs is critical in determining the focus of an education system. 

“There is a whole new blanket of learning that looks beyond a curriculum environment. Many countries, particularly New Zealand and Australia, have drawn attention to the oft-called ‘21st century skills’, but it is time to draw them into sharper focus.”

To this end, Lewis thinks there needs to be stronger collaboration between educators and business leaders.

She gives the example of mining, and says business councils in Australia have admitted they should have been clearer that there was going to be a mining boom in Australia, allowing schools to better prepare students for the eventuality of working in that industry.

Meanwhile other countries are aligning their education systems with predicted skills gaps in their workforces. India, for example, is placing greater emphasis on science and technology in its education system. Canada is taking a strong focus on entrepreneurship.

PricewaterhouseCoopers recently released a ‘World in 2050’ report that indicates that Australia is at risk of losing its G20 status unless politicians and business leaders start looking long-term and investing in education, particularly the STEM subjects.

The report estimates Australia will slip from 19th place in 2014 to 29th by 2050 in global economic rankings, while countries including Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Philippines and Thailand are predicted to surpass Australia, and India will challenge the US for second place. Lewis says while it is important to observe and learn from other countries, we shouldn’t be too quick to overlook what is under our noses.

“Due to our isolation we’ve become adept at learning best practices from other countries,” she says, “But New Zealand and Australia have some of the best research and investigative practices in the world.

“We are quick to pay for other educators from overseas to come in, and sometimes that is absolutely the right thing to do. But we need to be better at selling ourselves.”

In her new position with Solution Tree, Lewis’ remit will span the Asia-Pacific region, enabling her to work across different education systems. 

“Amongst the current reforms occurring in the Asia-Pacific education system, there are exciting developments and explorations into ‘what works’ for different contexts. Policymakers and educators need to nurture these innovative reforms,” she says.

“To ensure quality education for each and every student has been the focus of my career and I look forward to continuing to assist schools and systems to improve both school and student achievement at Solution Tree.”

 


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