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What does the new Headmaster think?

Having been in the position of seeing a new leader start at my own children’s school, I believe it is important for parents to understand a little about the person that will guide the organisation that will assist me as a parent to develop the person my child will become in later years. I have therefore put together some of my ‘philosophical’ beliefs regarding education and schooling, which form the basis of the way I work.

  1.  A school is a ‘Learning Community’, where the philosophies of learning are instilled in everything we do and what is best for our students is at the heart of our decision making. It is not however, only the students that are learners in a school. A Learning Community is one where students, parents, teachers and the school community collaborate, reflect, develop and strive to constantly improve as we work towards excellence in all aspects of school life.
  2. Education is a triangle.  The child forming the top corner, parents and teacher forming the remaining corners.  The sides are built of effective communication and mutual respect.  In order to provide the very best education for the child, home and school must be working together.  As teachers, we must recognise the insights and assistance parents can provide and what a privilege it is to have the care of someone’s child for five hours a day.  Conversely, it is just as vital that parents recognise and respect our role as professionals.  When the three corners of the triangle are working together and heading toward the same goal the very best learning outcomes can be achieved.
  3. Every child has traits to celebrate and should be valued.   All children have something in them that we can like, love and celebrate  They have a contribution to make and their opinions, thoughts and feelings are as valuable and as valid as my own.  . Similarly, every person in our school community has opinions, thoughts and feelings that should be valued and respected.
  4. Every student is an individual, with his/her own set of capabilities, needs, deficits and potential. As a school we need to ensure that each student has an educational journey that enhances their capabilities, meets their needs, turns deficits into achievement and maximises their potential.
  5. Classroom and behaviour management begins and ends with a focus on the desired behaviour.  I believe the only behaviour I can control is my own but I can certainly influence the behaviour of children.  It is important to instil discipline, with reminders of the desired behaviour and enable children to become self-disciplined by fostering an understanding that all behaviour, good or bad, carries with it natural consequences.
  6. The way we behave as staff, parents and community members sets the standard that we should expect from our children. Dealing constructively with issues and looking for solutions is how we must operate, rather than focussing on recriminations and seeking our ‘pound of flesh’. Seeking positive solutions teaches our students to become constructive members of society rather than destructive. We should always behave the way we want our children to behave – do not underestimate the value of role modelling!
  7. I will not compromise when it comes to getting the best for our students, and I never settle for mediocrity! We must expect the best from our students and provide them with opportunities, experiences and skills to reach their fullest potential and turn them into life-long learners.  Rather than just demand excellence, I believe an important part of our role is to INSPIRE excellence.  It is my goal that the drive and determination to do ones very best becomes part of what the student wants to do, rather than just an expectation from others.
  8. ‘Do unto others…’   Remembering always to treat those I encounter in my personal and working life, as I myself would like to be treated, means I attempt to approach all children, parents, staff and community with respect, kindness and a keen interest in them and what is happening in their lives.
  9. Last but not least – a sense of humour is a vital ingredient to survive the day-to-day trials of education!  There is no doubt that there is a time for seriousness and flippancy has no place, but I believe the classroom, staffroom or home should be full of fun and laughter in order to build a sense of community, collegiality and caring – all essential .

I hope this provides you with a small insight into me as a teacher, headmaster and person, and I look forward to my future interactions with you all, be you students, parents or community members.

Inquiry learning – another swing of the pendulum

It appears that just about everywhere you look in education at this time, the words “inquiry learning” are being bandied about.  Educationalists looking to improve their career prospects, to win over parents to some new way of running a classroom or to make a living as an educational consultant appear unable to complete an utterance without “inquiry learning” as part of it.  Schools are expending enormous sums of money on staff professional development courses with Inquiry Learning as the focus and even re-organising their schools to develop inquiry-learning approach classrooms as distinct from other more traditional teaching methods.

What is inquiry-learning?  In reality, it has been in schools since Adam went to school and experienced an interesting teacher – the teacher who made Social Studies, in particular, the best subject in the curriculum.

At its least effective, it was visible in the “projects” that my teachers set me to do in the 1960′s – I usually spent a great deal of time researching a really interesting topic of my own choosing, planned a booklet to contain all sorts of pertinent findings, completed the cover and the Index and not much else of any worth.

At its most efficient, it is to be seen in the passion with which pupils seek to deepen their personal understanding about a topic, perhaps one being studied at school, through the seeking of answers to questions that focus the search; and in the honing of higher-thinking skills that are required to analyse, synthesise and display the new learning.

Inquiry-learning is to be seen in many of the “tasks” that teachers set as part of a learning unit in Literature Studies, Science, History & Geography or in the Junior School integrated-learning topics.

There is a great deal of educational “good” in inquiry-learning approaches and information technology really does help achieve depth in both the inquiry and the higher-order thinking that can surround it.

However, in the same way that one asprin cures a headache but a handful of asprin does not solve the world’s issues, an over indulgence of inquiry learning is not the answer in education.

For a start, the novelty of continuously striving to ask deep, meaningful questions about a topic eventually results in question fatigue; children start to resent and resist the process.  As one particularly bright pupil said to me about the inquiry-learning focused classroom that he had come from to Grammar, “You just get sick of the questions!  You just wish the teacher would tell you something for a change!”  An unleavened diet of inquiry-learning is no panacea for education.

Another problem with inquiry-learning is that there is quite of significant lump of core knowledge that does not really fit the process well.  Direct teaching is probably the best way of teaching most mathematical concepts, music, spelling, written expression, and indeed, much of basic science content.  In fact, the ground-breaking research by John Hattie from Auckland University shows that direct teaching of material is the fourth most effective way of improving achievement while inquiry-learning approaches ranked a lowly 86th!!

Which leads me to the great issue that I have with inquiry-based learning – it is a terribly inefficient way of teaching content that affects real learning.  In the cyclical way of continuously re-evaluating the knowledge that has been accumulated, renewing the search and posing further questions, let alone reporting back, enormous numbers of hours are consumed; weeks of precious school time.  Supporters of inquiry-learning will tell you that the time taken is rewarded by the depth of knowledge and thnking; but that is very hard to prove or believe.

The real truth about inquiry-learning approaches is that they are just one of the tools that a good teacher uses, judiciously but not continuously; selectively for an appropriate topic. Certainly a primary school that sets out to embed inquiry-learning as its fundamental framework for learning is going to be producing children who are very likely to be entering secondary school with a less than complete inventory of core knowledge and skills; and from my observation, an inflated belief in the quality of their personal abilities.

I am so very glad to be in the independent school sector where we can chose the degree to which we adopt this latest apparent fad in education.  Schools should be more honest with parents – inquiry learning is not particularly new, is not particularly effective or efficient and is just one method of teaching some material.  It should be part, but only part, of what happens in a classroom.

Unfortunately, education, like fashion, loves a pendulum - here we go on another swing!

Examinations – getting real

Examinations are a much-maligned educational tool these days in some circles; it is fashionable to write them off as out-moded, unfair and demoralising.

Indeed, like most things in life, an examination is not without issues and is not entirely fair.  The anxiety that some people feel when sitting an exam can lead to results which do not truly reflect their ability level, and an examination can never be long enough (thankfully) to cover all the learning in a year. Not everyone produces his/her best in an examination setting and examinations do not measure such things as attitude nor team skills.

Nonetheless, it is fascinating to witness, year in, year out, just how well examinations match in-class results.  In the pluses and losses of marks that is an examination, with the exception of lower extremes, the end result usually is a reasonably accurate indication of ability, skills and knowledge; pretty much as good as it gets in objectively measuring human endeavour.

That is not to say that examinations are wonderful; there are many other forms of evaluation which we should and do use including observation, self-evaluation, peer evaluation and crtiteria-based forms of assessment.

But examinations are efficient, objective and acceptably fair.

Of course, a result is the least that an examination offers the sitter.  The greatest benefit of an examination, on top of the opportunity for self-reflection, is the creation of expectation that real learning and mastery is required of the learner.  In much of what passes for “modern” education, there is little real expectation on the learner – or even on the teacher – for real learning.  Participation appears to be the greatest element, with specific learning a hoped-for side effect.  While the expectation should naturally be that the teaching is excellent, too often the role of the learner in learning is overlooked.

When learners face up to having to expose their real internalised skills and new knowledge in a test situation where guidance from without is not available, they come to a really important life-skills moment: the point of responsibility for their actions, in this case, their learning.

As we mature into self-actualising individuals, we learn over repeated experiences of facing up to examinations, even rather small ones, that we need to engage with content and skills and the teaching/learning process, and with the revision process as well.  It is a realisation which helps makes sense of the whole enterprise.

That is why we continue to have examinations from Year 4 in our Boys’ and Girls’ Schools; just small ones in reality upon which we look only for confirmation of more sohisticated assessments. As one parent said to me recently, her children saw examinations as really quite fun and happily looked forward to them knowing that they provided an opportunity to reflect their knowledge base.

If children have such attitudes at Year 4 & 5, imagine the confidence that they will take into more important examinations.

Our Location

To arrange a visit please contact the School:

Street Address

The Cathedral Grammar School
26 Park Terrace
Christchurch 8013

Phone: (03) 365 0385
Fax: (03) 365 0384

Postal Address

The Cathedral Grammar School
PO Box 2244
Christchurch 8140