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Principal’s Message – Mid-Term 2, 2023

I spent time over the last week at a Principal’s conference in New Plymouth. One of the keynote speakers, Yong Zhao, Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Kansas, talked to us about what he saw as the future of education in the age of ‘smart machines’. 

Yong talked about his humble beginnings, honestly and humourously, as he described growing up in rural China and showing no aptitude for farming whatsoever to the point that his father and mother decided to send him to school. Yong was born in the early sixties, between the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the ‘Cultural Revolution’. Although in some ways his education was a bit of an accident, it was absolutely formative in Yong’s life and he was thankful for the insight his parents had shown in recognising, as he described, his complete ‘uselessness’ on a farm.

Yong then explored trends in PISA data which showed an on average decline in results in the last 20 years in OECD countries. He showed us the effects and surprisingly positive results that COVID home learning has had in countries where lockdowns were for much longer times than we experienced in New Zealand. He talked about the politics involved in education and he talked about changes in standards, pedagogy (method/practice of teaching), teachers, and assessment. He described and was skeptical of modern ‘trends’ which emphasise computational thinking (everyone needs to learn how to code!), growth mindsets (if you try harder you will succeed – but what if you can’t?), STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), GERM (Global Education Reform Movement since the 1980s ‘infecting’ the US, England, Australia with standardisation, emphasis on ‘core’ subjects, etc) and evidence based practices that often focus on deficiencies rather than strengths.

None of us go for too long without being cognisant of some type of educational debate going on, and there have been a lot in the last few years. And on a side note, this is one of the areas where teachers are struggling to get deeper understanding in the current climate.

A key point that Yong delivered was that because of all the initiatives, sometimes we can get caught up in trying to improve ‘test scores’ but sacrifice learning in the process. And when Yong talks about learning it is an extrapolation of his own early experience. He was aware that he had unique talents in his family. He understands, as we should, that all children have different, unique talents and motivations. 

Yong then described to us throwing birds, a somewhat unusual analogy but effective for the point he was making. He said if you throw a dead bird (bear with me), you have a good idea where it will land. However, if you throw a live bird (and I am not for a moment suggesting either practice – no emails please!) you will have no idea what will happen next – except that it will most likely not end up where you think. 

Although there were a few murmurs in the room at this point, Yong then proceeded to say that our students are alive, they are diverse, and we don’t know where they will ‘land’ (phew!). In fact, we need to encourage them on that journey and not hinder their own progress with our own values and expectations.

I am a father of a 21 year old and a 23 year old so this was some comfort to me as my own adult children are navigating the next part of their lives. As the Principal of this high school, this is also comfort as I witness the diverse talents of our school population through sport, cultural and community actions. I think if there is a recurring theme to my Principal’s messages, it is probably about the opportunities for students to connect in other ways to our school, and for them to be able to cultivate and nurture the individual talents that they possess.

Finally, Yong returned to the theme of his keynote advocating for what he described as ‘mass personalisation’, at a time when students already have the ability to learn ‘personally’. Although different talents and abilities will have different values to society, every talent is worth developing. We, as parents and educators, need to support our young people to develop the diverse range of talents that they bring.

I write the day before our teacher only day and long weekend. I hope you are able to spend some valuable time with your young person over the weekend.

Mauri ora!

Dominic Killalea