Why Kids Can’t Sit Still in School: View From an 8-Year-old

July 16, 2014 By Jennifer L. W. Fink
My son saw the headline — “Why So Many Kids Can’t Sit Still in School Today” — over my shoulder.

He yelled, “Nobody can!”

To my son (who’s had his own issues with sitting still in school) and many other kids, the idea that school itself induces fidgeting is not at all a new idea. But many adults still seem somewhat perplexed by the prevalence of kids who have a hard time sitting still. Hence, articles such as the New York Times’ “A Link Between Fidgety Boys and a Sputtering Economy” and the Washington Post article my son saw over my shoulder.

“Do you want me to read it to you?” I asked.

“Sure,” my son said.

I read to him as he ate his lunch. Three paragraphs in, my son said, “That person is very, very smart.”

A bit further into the article — around the part where a local teacher comments that “at least eight of her twenty-two students have trouble paying attention on a good day” –my son interrupted me again.

“That’s what everyone is. They’re just too scared to bring it out.”

Shut Up, Sit Still and Be Quiet

My son is eight. He’s completed preschool, kindergarten, first grade and second grade, and in those few short years, he’s already figured out — and is aware of! – the power imbalance between students and teachers, kids and adults. At age eight, he knows he needs to move. He know most kids need to move far more than than do in a school day. But he and the other students already know that they can’t say anything about it or they’ll get in trouble.

That’s disturbing to me, and I hope it’s disturbing to you as well. Because what my son and his friends (and your kids) are learning is that it’s not OK to speak up and talk about what they need.

My son may only be eight years old, but he knows what he’s interested in and how he prefers to learn. Most educators, though, never ask him. Most educators are so focused on getting through all of the (adult-created) curriculum and requirements that what the kids need is an afterthought.

Meanwhile, our kids learn to shut up, sit still and be quiet. They also learn that there is something wrong with them if they can’t sit down, shut up and sit still. Go back to the WaPo article. Listen to the 6-year-old boy saying, “I hate myself” and “I’m no good at anything.”

That’s not a kid who’s being overly dramatic. Those are the words of a kid who spends hours every week in a system that tells him that his innate drives are wrong.

A Better Way

The true irony here is that mounds of educational and developmental research show that kids (both boys and girls) learn best when they are physically and intellectually engaged. When they are allowed to follow their interests and to learn through experience and experimentation.

Right now, school districts around the country are implementing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs that encourage kids to creatively and collaboratively solve problems. STEM programs are more than simple science, math and tech classes. According to the Englewood School District, STEM education “is active and focuses on a student-centered learning environment. Students engage in questioning, problem solving, collaboration, and hands-on activities while they address real life issues.”

Industry and business leaders have long been asking for employees who can creatively problem solve. In response, the federal government has allotted millions of dollars (via Race to the Top grants ) to support STEM education. And yet, in too many places, our youngest students are told to sit down and shut up.

I asked my son how adults could make schools better for kids. His first answer was, “Make recess better. Let kids bring bikes and stuff, and have longer recesses.”

His next words were profound: “They need school to be kid-friendly place, not a grown-up friendly place.”

I hope our educators and policy makers are listening.


Longer Recess, Stronger Child Development


hanscom-new-rethinkrecess-istockBy Angela Hanscom

August 24, 2016


Longer Recess, Stronger Child Development

With an hour-long recess, elementary schools can help children develop through increased creative play, authentic SEL, and adequate physical regulation.

Eight young students are outside on top of a metal, geodesic dome at a playground, looking down.
“Here they come,” the teacher tells me with a weary smile. The children are on their way back from recess. Excited voices echo from down the hallway. I’ve decided to volunteer at my daughter’s elementary school for the afternoon. Eager to see her smiling face, I intently watch the door as the children enter. Their energy as they trickle into the classroom is almost palpable. Even though the children are told to quickly take a seat, it takes a solid ten minutes for them to settle in. There are reminders to put away jackets, trips to the bathroom, pencils being sharpened, children talking to other children, brief episodes of giggling, and a few rowdy demonstrations of affection between some boys.

Later, the teacher confides in me, “I don’t understand it. I think the children have more energy after they’ve had recess! Sometimes I wonder if recess is even worth it.”

Shortfalls of a Short Recess

Many teachers report that the period after recess is the absolute hardest transition time of the day. The children are often so wound up that it’s hard bring their focus back to their lessons. Some teachers confess to using special techniques to calm and re-focus the children, such as dimming the lights or playing soothing music as they reenter the classroom. While these are great coping strategies to help manage the chaos, preventing episodes of amplified activity from occurring in the first place may prove to be the most beneficial. To do that, we need to allow for a longer recess session. May I boldly suggest at least an hour?

An adequate amount of recess time (or lack thereof) can directly affect children’s ability to pay attention, self-regulate, socialize intelligently, and master complex learning skills. We can try to squeeze in short movement breaks here and there, but it won’t have the same effects — or, for that matter, even the same potential. Small movement breaks will always fall short of a good old-fashioned lengthy recess time. Here are three reasons why:

1. Creative Play: Recess sessions that last at least an hour have the potential to foster creative play. Many early childhood centers stress the importance of “large blocks of time (45-60 minutes)” for play throughout the day to help children develop “problem-solving skills that require persistence and engagement.” Observations through our summer camp program consistently demonstrate that it takes an average of 45 minutes of free play before children dive deep into more complex and evolved play schemes. It takes time for children to figure out who they’re going to play with, what they’re going to play, what everyone’s role will be, and finally to execute their plan. If recess lasts only 15-20 minutes, the children are just figuring out who they’ll play with and what they’ll do before the bell rings and recess is over. Many times, this allows for few (if any) imaginative play opportunities.

2. Social-Emotional Development: In recent years, children have exhibited more trouble reading social cues, demonstrating empathy, and effectively socializing with their peers. Schools have created special “social skills groups” to help combat this problem. However, these adult-directed gatherings that emphasize role-playing are limited in their applicability. Children learn social skills best through real-life scenarios and play opportunities with their peers. They quickly learn that whining doesn’t work with friends and that they don’t always get what they want. To learn effective social skills, children need plenty of opportunities to freely engage with other children. Recess, if long enough, offers an ideal environment to practice these skills.

3. Physical Regulation: Children require longer than 20 minutes of active free play in order to regulate their bodies and prepare for learning (PDF). In fact, when you first let children outdoors, their initial movement experiences will actually increase their activity levels. According to Eric Jensen’s book Teaching With the Brain in Mind, “A short recess arouses students and may leave them ‘hyper’ and less able to concentrate.” Children benefit from an extended recess session (approximately an hour in length), because it gives their bodies time to regulate the movement and bring their activity level back down again.

A Call to Active Play

Let’s face it: the current 20-minute recess sessions are not long enough. A mere 20 minutes won’t allow children to dive deep into their imaginary worlds or create elaborate play schemes. This is not enough time for children to practice effective social skills — something that’s lacking in this age of technology. And a short recess won’t let children regulate their bodies to prepare them for higher-level learning experiences.

If we just made our recess sessions a little longer, we would likely see significant changes in child behavior, attention, and even creativity. The Swanson Primary School in Auckland, New Zealand is a perfect example of giving children more time and freedom at recess, and of the many benefits they saw as a result. We can do the same. All we need to do is make recess a priority once again.

Sir Ken Robinson: How to Create a Culture For Valuable Learning

By Katrina Schwartz
AUGUST 15, 2016


There are still many disagreements about how to improve the education system so that children graduate with the skills and dispositions they will need to succeed in life. Education reform discussions often center on how to tweak existing mechanisms, but what if the system itself is creating the problems educators and policymakers are trying to solve? That’s the theory favored by author and TED-talk sensation Sir Ken Robinson.

“If you design a system to do something, don’t be surprised if it does it,” Robinson said at the annual Big Picture Learning conference called Big Bang. He went on to describe the two pillars of the current system — conformity and compliance — which undermine the sincere efforts of educators and parents to equip children with the confidence to enter the world on their own terms.

‘If you get preoccupied by a certain type of achievement then you don’t even look for other things people might be good at.’Sir Ken Robinson
Education has become a strategic priority for countries competing for an edge in a globalized economy. Political leaders know future generations need to be ready to take on an ever-evolving economy and that a nation’s prosperity depends on a prepared workforce. These concerns have led to more comparisons across countries and attempts within various countries to standardize the education each child receives.

The problem with this conformist approach, Robinson said, is that “human life is like the rest of life on earth; it is characterized by diversity.” Parents with more than one child know all too well that each can be radically different in temperament, personality and in their strengths and weaknesses. The same rules and parenting approach may work with one, but not the others. And yet this fundamental diversity in the human population is not honored within education. Instead, the curriculum has narrowed and now prioritizes a type of intelligence that favors academic work.

“There’s much more to human intelligence than a certain sort of academic work,” Robinson said. And, “if you get preoccupied by a certain type of achievement then you don’t even look for other things people might be good at.” Robinson points out that when the system narrowly defines success, it will exclude a huge portion of students who don’t happen to be good at those few valued skills.
“We marginalize other forms of intelligence; and it’s a big deal,” Robinson said. But if collectively those involved in the education system changed what it means to achieve in a way that honors the natural diversity of human life, many more people would see themselves as achievers and would push themselves beyond expectations set for them.

The other central tenet of today’s education system is compliance, which Robinson sees best reflected in the testing industry, a multibillion dollar business. But tests only measure what test-makers put on them, and how can such a small group of people know what will truly be useful to a student in a quickly-changing future? Robinson is troubled by the trend of adults in the current moment trying to predict the specific-knowledge students will need. The current focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning is a good example of adults looking at where jobs are right now and trying to make education fit. But who knows what other skills might be necessary 20 years from now?

“The real principle on which human life is based is organic growth and development,” Robinson said. It’s based on the need to invent your own life.” But the education system is not set up to allow for that kind of organic development, although Robinson acknowledges that many educators are doing their best to protect this form of learning. “They’re doing wonderful work because they believe in kids and the work, but they’re doing it against a headwind,” he said.

Part of the problem is the multitude of opinions and lack of clarity on exactly what it is an education should do. Debates about how to improve education will continue to rage because at a fundamental level participants don’t agree about why (or if) kids should go to school. Robinson firmly believes that creativity is a central element of what sets humans apart from other forms of life on earth and so educators’ mission should be to bring out the unique creative energy within each child.

Robinson believes education is “to enable students to understand the world around them, and the talents within them, so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active, compassionate citizens.” He doesn’t deny that learning information about the world is important, but he says it’s equally important for students to understand their own talents, motivations and passions if they are going to lead lives that satisfy them. The current system of conformity and compliance leaves no space for this type of self-exploration.
“We spend more time talking about the outside world at school, but not enough time compelling the world within them,” Robinson said. But it’s the individual’s world view that ultimately determines whether that person stays in school, persists through challenges, feels motivated, interested, engaged and dedicated to work. And failing to focus on a sense of individual purpose could even be contributing to rising levels of depression seen in the US.

Robinson doesn’t deny that education has an economic purpose, and that it’s important for young people to become economically independent and self-sufficient. But to do that, he argues, they shouldn’t all learn the same thing. Instead, they should be learning to be adaptable, to be innovative, to flow with change, to collaborate and other globalized skills that will apply to whatever area of work they are passionate about pursuing. An education can help expose students to different life paths and support them in finding their passions, while giving them the transferable skills to attack any problem.


The education system is commonly compared to mechanization, a “factory-model,” designed to push cookie-cutter children through in age-based batches. Robinson finds industrialized farming to be a better metaphor because it deals with living organisms. Farmers went from an organic model of farming that prioritized crop diversity, rotation and fertile soil to a system of monocrops that easily fall prey to pests, which in turn are killed with chemicals. The focus is on output and yield, which increased with chemical fertilizers. This system does what it was designed to do — it produces a lot of food, but at the expense of the environment.

Similarly, the education system has focused on increasing the number of high school graduates, the output, with no concern for whether they become happy, fulfilled human beings.

“The way you increase the quality of our children’s experience, their life chances, it’s not by focusing on yield, but on focusing on the culture of the school,” Robinson said. A healthy mix of mentorship, arts, physical education, academic subjects and more creates the “healthy soil” in this analogy, the environment in which kids can flourish. Author Paul Tough also talked about strong learning environments as the key element to success in his book Helping Children Succeed.

Robinson said when schools get the culture part right they become an important asset for the community around them. “Great schools enrich the entire neighborhood, the entire ecosystem,” Robinson said. But “schools that don’t get their role in the community can drain the life force out of the community.” The best schools develop the human resources of the community to further more investment, pride and high expectations.

“We spend so much time containing and constraining our teachers and students who have so much talent,” Robinson said. And while some parts of the conformist and compliance-based system are unavoidable, other parts are perpetuated by well-meaning educators simply because that’s the way things have always been done. Robinson is calling on all educators to look at the available resources differently, more creatively, and to use them to create learning environments that allow individual students to thrive and flourish.

Why is Australia’s education system going backwards?

DECEMBER 9 2016 Kelsey Munro SMH

When it comes to education – what works, what has gone wrong, who pays for it – the debate can get very emotional and, shall we say, evidence-free.

So here we assess some of the arguments put forward to explain why Australian students are going backwards on key global tests like PISA, released this week. Some have a higher degree of truthiness than others.

What PISA says about Australian schools

The major global test of student achievement reveals just how far Australian high school students are behind their peers in the world’s best performing countries.

Parents are the worst

Judy called me on Wednesday. She is an experienced teacher in a NSW region, fed up with what she saw as a glaring omission in the debate.

“If I had to pick one factor on whether or not a student was going to strive, perform well, get their homework done: it’s the value that parents put on education,” she said.

It’s anecdotal, but she has a point that’s borne out in the data. Longitudinal research from the University of Queensland shows that kids who grow up in a home with more books – as a proxy measure for how much their parents care about literacy and education – have consistently higher test scores.

If parents don’t instil respect for the importance of learning, it’s an uphill battle for teachers.
Chris Presland, the head of the NSW Secondary Principals Association, said “we have schools that are expected to do a lot of parenting for parents that are too busy or incapable of doing what they should be doing, and the end result is teachers that are just trying to do so much.”

Kids today!

I know, right? With their Snapchat and their YouTube and their attitude? I mean, East Asian countries where the kids stand up when the teacher walks in, do their homework on pain of death and slave in night-time drill schools consistently beat us in these things.

Skeptics abound on the cultural bias, methodology and legitimacy of tests like PISA and TIMSS.
Skeptics abound on the cultural bias, methodology and legitimacy of tests like PISA and TIMSS. Photo: Janie Barrett
Research shows a correlation between high-discipline environments and better test scores. It also shows that better student outcomes correlate with universal quality preschool access, which we don’t really have.

Or maybe, as Canterbury Girls High student Paloma Jackson-Vaughan pointed out in a good piece for Fairfax this week, a non-compulsory, anonymised test the implications of which are entirely opaque is not something the average 15-year-old is going to invest a lot of mental energy in. Which leads us to our next point.
Smartphones have fried their brains

There is a groundswell of concern about the rise of the smartphone to total dominance in our waking lives. Digital technology is enriching, but also consumes our attention at the expense of books, outdoor activities and social life. What might that mean for developing teenage brains who have known no life without it?

Could obsessive use of digital media, as Nicholas Carr suggested in his Pulitzer-shortlisted 2011 book The Shallows, actually be rewiring our brains away from deep concentration and problem-solving toward infinite skimming and perpetual distractibility? Is this why the average 15-year-old can’t solve problems her predecessors could 15 years ago?

Venerated Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg fears so. Pointing out that Finland’s PISA results in reading have been in decline since 2009 without any other changes to the education system, he asks, “how else can you explain this dramatic change?”

High-performing Japan slipped a bit in PISA 2015 reading too, a result its experts blamed on digital technology.

The research is in its infancy because academia moves glacially compared to our digital overlords and their marketing armies in Silicon Valley. But a decade-long Canadian study, “Growing Up Digital”, has reported disturbing preliminary results, with a majority of phone-obsessed students coming to school tired, distracted and unable to focus.

The PISA test is meaningless

Skeptics abound on the cultural bias, methodology and legitimacy of tests like PISA and TIMSS. How much can you really tell from a multilingual, sample-based test performed by a random selection of students, in a bunch of wildly different education systems?

Teacher and head of the Australian Tutoring Association Mohan Dhall argues there is limited value in country comparisons through PISA.

“They do not compare like with like,” he said. “In Australia, teachers work with an incredible diversity of students, need to meet the needs of a wide range of learning styles and do not benefit from a culture of compliance evident in other nations … Teachers here have a role that is far more demanding than in nations where students and their families vest everything in education and where tutoring is endemic.”

We’re actually not doing that badly

Look, we’re still well above the OECD average. We ranked 14th in science, 16th in reading and 25th in mathematics, of 72 participating countries and economies.

We outranked the UK, the US and France in all three categories. And most of the countries ahead of us – with the exceptions of Canada and New Zealand – are small, monocultures like Singapore, Hong Kong and Finland. There are a lot more challenges educating a vast, diverse country like Australia.

This is all true and relevant for a sense of perspective, but none of it accounts for the internal decline in our scores.

The teachers are no good

There is “clearly something wrong” with our education system, federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham said this week after the PISA results. But what, exactly?

“The single greatest in-school factor in terms of student accomplishment is absolutely the teacher,” he told ABC radio. “Our number one focus has to always be teacher quality and ensuring that our hardworking teachers are given the skills in their training years and then the support through ongoing professional development to be the best.”

If the average Australian student is 10 months’ schooling behind where they were 15 years ago in terms of their literacy skills, it seems reasonable to ask if the average Australian teacher is not teaching as well as they were then. This is not a popular argument with teachers, or the unions, although they have acknowledged doubts over the way universities have lowered entry requirements for teaching.

There is also a major problem with teachers teaching “out of field” in maths due to the shortage of qualified maths teachers.

We do know that high performing countries manage to attract top-tier students to the occupation – Singapore and Hong Kong draw teachers from the top 30 per cent of school leavers. In Finland and South Korea it’s the top 10 per cent. But “Australia draws its teachers largely from the middle third of school leavers,” writes the Australian Council for Education Research’s Geoff Masters.

NSW has attempted to address that with reforms like requiring a minimum standard of three band-five HSC results for teaching degrees to ensure their results are in the top 30 per cent of the state.

The Grattan Institute’s Peter Goss says the most important thing is continuing professional development of the existing teaching body. He says NSW’s Targeted Teaching program, which started in 50 schools and is now in 400, is showing promising results. The program employs experienced instructional leaders full-time to coach other teachers – it’s a way of finding out what’s really going on in classrooms and working to improve it every day.

Funding has been going to the wrong things

Small class sizes cost more, and it’s an easy winner with parents and teachers, but the research shows it makes little difference.

Or, as Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s top education honcho has said, if you have a choice between a small class size or a great teacher, go for the great teacher.

A Fairfax Media investigation revealed this year that yes, there are private schools that are over-funded. Some of our richest schools get millions above the School Resourcing Standard.

Private students get less taxpayer money per head than public students. But when limited taxpayer dollars have been going for years to schools that can afford to put cameras in their swimming pools while state schools have teachers buying supplies out of their own pocket, we have a problem.

It is overwhelmingly the public system where the neediest kids go to school. On 2013 figures, 82 per cent of low-SES students go to public schools, 12 per cent to Catholic and 6 per cent to independent schools. 84 per cent of Indigenous students and 77 per cent of kids with a disability are in state schools.

“We’ve spent a lot of money on education and haven’t got the results for it that we wanted, but I think that is because the money isn’t necessarily being directed where it will be most effective,” said Dr Sue Thomson, a former teacher and the Australian Council for Education Research’s resident PISA expert. “If it’s in these high-achieving schools we might get a little more high achievement, but if we direct more of it to low-achieving schools we’re more likely to get much more value for money. It’s by lifting the low-achieving students you can lift the system.”

Which leads us to the last and perhaps most salient argument.

Australia’s system is too unequal

The bottom 25 per cent of Australian 15 year olds by socio-economic background are on average a full three years’ schooling behind the top 25 per cent. This has not changed in the 15 years of PISA.

Why does a low socio-economic background disadvantage kids?

“It plays out because students don’t have the resources that their more advantaged colleagues have,” Dr Thomson said. “They don’t have access to parents with the same level of education, they don’t have homes with the same levels of resources, they might live in overcrowded conditions and not have room to study, or they may have parents who don’t have time to help them or don’t understand the value of education.

“They don’t get read to as young children, they don’t get experiences that other kids with money do. Kids in the bush might go to schools where they have complete turnover of teachers from one year to another. There’s a whole raft of things.”

This is why the Gonski needs-based funding model was designed to give additional loadings to disadvantaged kids.

Maurie Mulheron, head of the NSW Teachers Federation, said “I’m surprised that people are surprised. What the PISA results have confirmed are the findings of the Gonski review. Australia has the largest concentration of disadvantaged students in disadvantaged schools. That means those schools are almost the emergency wards of the health care system, that requires a very intense set of resources to combat intergenerational poverty.”

High quality and high equity systems are the ones that do the best in the world.

At the launch of the 2015 PISA results in London this week, OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría said “in Japan, Hong Kong and Estonia, the 20 per cent most disadvantaged students do as well as the average student in the OECD area.

“And we know how they do it. They set high and universal expectations for all students. They keep an unwavering focus on great teaching. They target resources on struggling students and schools. And they stick with coherent, long-term strategies.”

Are Boys Failing School or Is School Failing Boys?

It’s the ultimate chicken-or-egg question.

According to a comprehensive new report about gender and education:

Compared to girls, boys are more likely to say they think school is a waste of time, show up late to class and generally be less ambitious with their education and career expectations. They also spend less time doing homework and reading for pleasure, and more time playing video games or engaging with technology.

If you have boys, I bet those findings come as no surprise to you. Those sentences pretty much sum up what I see in my home and in my community, and what I’ve heard from dozens of families of boys.

It’s entirely possible to look at those findings and blame boys for their lackluster achievement in school. After all, boys, how do you expect to get ahead if you don’t put some serious effort into your education!

But isn’t it also possible that those findings describe the symptoms, not the cause, of a problem? Perhaps boys are less excited about school and less likely to do homework because school doesn’t meet their needs.

Perhaps boys consider school a waste of time because school asks them to spend a ton of time on topics and activities that don’t interest them and appear to have no relevance to their lives, while asking (or requiring) them to ignore, deny and push aside things that do interest them.
Perhaps boys show up late for class because they don’t feel comfortable in a place that rarely or never asks them what they’d like to learn, or how they’d like to learn it. Perhaps boys instinctively avoid a place where they’re statistically more likely to get in trouble, to be suspended or expelled.
Perhaps boys don’t put time and effort into their homework because, too often, the homework is merely busywork that has nothing to do with their personal interests, agendas or learning styles. Perhaps boys would rather spend their time and energy on activities that are personally meaningful to them.
Perhaps boys spend less time reading for pleasure because schools don’t spend much time on reading materials boys enjoy. Perhaps these boys have not been introduced to authors and genres they’d like, and perhaps neither boys nor schools or surveyors count much of the reading boys do. (Surfing the Web requires lots of reading.) And is reading for pleasure really superior to reading for information? To reading for a purpose?
Perhaps boys spend a lot of time on video games because video games give them freedom and allow them to exercise their creativity and problem skills in ways that few school do.
Perhaps boys’ response to school is entirely reasonable when we consider the school experience from boys’ point of view.

Recently, I visited the local high school’s Freshman Orientation night with my second son. We wandered through the library, which was filled with tables and students promoting the various extracurricular activities available at school: Spanish Club. Yearbook. Forensics. Show Choir. Soccer. Basketball. Baseball. Student Council. Football. Track and Field. Cross Country. Band.

A fellow mom of an 8th grade boy cornered me. “What are you making your son do?”

I paused, unsure how to answer. Making him do?

“Well,” I finally said (with my son at my shoulder), “I’m sure he’ll play baseball.” (Said son has played baseball since age 6 and loves it.)

“Oh, that’s right. Your son does sports,” the other mom said. “My son’s not in anything.”

Clearly, this mom wants her son to be involved. She heard the school administrators say that kids who are involved in school activities are more likely to enjoy school, more likely to feel a part of the school community, and more likely to do well. Her heart is in the right place.

But as I walked around the room — seeing kids I’ve known for years — I realized that the school’s offerings don’t match up with the boys’ interests.

“Hey,” one kid said to mine, nudging him. “Where’s the fishing club?”

Huh. No fishing club. No class either, I’m sure, that uses fishing to help students learn about ecology or geography or physiology, history or language arts. My son, an avid fisherman, would thrive in that class. So would the friend who nudged him and many of their fishing buddies. School doesn’t work that way, though.

Similarly, there’s no video game club or class that uses video games to teach coding, storytelling, history, geography or any of a thousand other things. The boy who’s “not in anything?” He’s an avid — and intelligent — gamer. He creates mods. Uploads content to YouTube. And communicates with other gamers worldwide via the Internet.

The shame here, in my opinion, isn’t that he’s not in a school activity; the shame is that far too many schools marginalize boys like him by essentially telling them that their interests are worthless. Instead of encouraging boys’ interests, school too often tell them their interests are a waste of time.

What a waste!

According to the OCED report, the one about gender and education, “boys download music, films, games and software from the internet more than girls.” Boys are also more likely to upload their own content (which means they’re creating content) and more likely to read news online.

What a wasted opportunity! This report — as well as conversations with and observations of our boys — tells us what our boys like, what they value. Yet everyday, far too many of them are herded into schools that completely ignore the boys’ interests and needs.

No wonder the boys are disengaged. No wonder they spend their time and energy on non-school related activities. And no wonder their grades reflect their lack of interest and disengagement.

We can fix this. Unfortunately, I think the recommendations in the report don’t go nearly far enough. The report’s five recommendations are:

Give students greater choice in what they read.
Allow some video gaming, but homework comes first
Train teachers to be aware of their own gender bias
Build girls self-confidence
Help students look ahead
I’d recommend adding a #6: Create classes that respect boys’ interests and learning styles.

What do you think? Do you think boys fail in school because they don’t put in the effort, or do you think boys are failing in school because schools are failing boys? How do you think schools can better serve boys?

Stop blaming teachers for falling results and give them the trust and time to actually teach

Stop blaming teachers for falling results and give them the trust and time to actually teach | Ned Manning

School children working with their teacher in the class room
News that there we have slipped further behind in global rankings in maths and science in our schools has brought the usual responses from the usual suspects. The federal minister for education Simon Birmingham says that “he is embarrassed” at the “appalling results”.

He says this has nothing to do with funding but everything to do with “teacher quality”. That old chestnut. Nothing to do with class sizes either. Birmingham is on the record quoting research that says smaller class sizes don’t make a difference.

Let’s just put that one to bed once and for all.

Just because classes of 45 are manageable in other cultures doesn’t mean they are here. We are culturally very different to many of the countries on the rankings ladder. What can a teacher do in an Australian school do if a student tells them to “fuck off” or tosses a chair out the window or doesn’t do their homework? Nothing. Where is the support for such situations? In the principal’s office? The same principal who is so weighed down with the demands of the parents, the departments and the education bureaucracies that they are unable to get out of their office even if they want to?

When are we going to face up to the fact that we have got our priorities all wrong? When are we going to stop the blame game and take the steps that need to be taken to improve conditions in our schools for both teachers and students and, in doing so, inevitably raise standards?

Is it any wonder 30%-50% of new teachers drop out in the first five years of teaching? Is it because they have been badly trained or have poor skills? Or is it because they discover that teaching in contemporary Australian schools involves so much work outside the classroom that they never get to do what they are trained for? That is, teach.

Our obsession with accountability means that every spare moment of a teacher’s life is spent not preparing lessons or finding resources but satisfying the bureaucratic demands of the job. In other words filling in forms. Doing paperwork, most of which could be done by anyone.

Young teachers need mentors. We all know that. It’s not easy controlling a class of teenagers whose respect you have to earn. That’s right, earn. Our culture does everything but respect teachers. Why would anyone think our students would be any different?

We have very different disciplinary expectations to some of our “rivals” on educational ladder tables. We also have students with a range of special needs. They are not going to get where we want them to be on their own.

It’s astounding that we can’t make the link between the appalling social conditions endured by some of our communities and their educational results. People in living in abject poverty aren’t doing well in maths and science. Who’d have thought? Must be the teachers. People living is disadvantaged areas aren’t doing well at school? Blow me down. You know who to blame. People who have escaped war torn regions and for whom English is a second language are struggling in class. Really? Must be the fault of that young teacher trying to control a class of tearaways.

Here’s a simple suggestion to get the ball rolling: remove all but the most essential paperwork from teachers’ inboxes and give them the space to devote the time they need to prepare lessons for their classes. Provide them with the physical and emotional support they need in the way of mentors. And, sorry Mr Birmingham, in this country, keep class sizes manageable.

A conga line of politicians from both sides of the political divide have pointed to increased funding over the years as though this in itself is the panacea. As Gonski and now the Grattan Institute have pointed out, it’s not the money it’s how it is spent. By providing resources on a needs based formula we will go a long way to getting it right.

To start on the right foot with this we need to once and for all put an end to the tired old private v public debate that chews up way too much air time and is preventing the kinds of advances being made that we desperately need.

The government doesn’t even need to increase funding – it just needs to identify where it is most needed and, as Grattan’s Peter Goss says, make that transparent. Only a tiny fraction of private schools – 1% – are seriously over funded. That could be redressed with the stroke of a pen and most of those schools would accept the cuts because, surprise, surprise, they are teachers at heart and most teachers support Gonski’s recommendations. Then cap the next 2% of private schools that have adequate funding and increase on a needs-based formula for those private schools that are struggling. Similarly, cap funding to the better resourced public schools and reallocate that funding as needs be.

It really is time we took the politics out of this debate. On both sides. And stop looking for scapegoats. If we want to lift our rankings on global educational ladders we all have to contribute.

After all, in the end these are all our children.

Strict classroom discipline improves student outcomes and work ethic, studies find

SMH 10.11.16

Strict discipline and pressure to perform? Or a child-centred, individual approach?

The debate over the relative benefits of Eastern and Western styles of school education has been kicked off again by two new studies which find evidence that strict discipline in the classroom produces better academic outcomes and a stronger work ethic in students, in results that could have implications for Australia’s sliding academic performance internationally.


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The lead author of both studies, associate professor Chris Baumann from Macquarie University, said the findings suggest Australian classrooms should return to the more strict discipline approach that was pushed out by “permissive” education in the 1970s.

In the newest study, “School discipline, school uniforms and academic performance”, published in the International Journal of Educational Management, the researchers crunched OECD data on classroom discipline, finding that strict, high-discipline countries were the highest performing countries academically. They also found uniforms correlate with better discipline in the classroom.

“The argument does not mean that we have to be super strict, of course we have to care for our students and have a loving approach,” said professor Baumann, “but it does seem that discipline has been overlooked a bit.”

And the related study, “Work ethic formed by pedagogical approach”, published this year in the Asia Pacific Business Review found that in all the Asian countries studied, strict discipline was a statistically significant driver of a strong work ethic, defined as a positive attitude to work.
Most Western countries are falling behind East Asian countries in education outcomes. Australia’s performance in the OECD’s latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results means that an average 12-year-old Korean student’s maths and science problem-solving abilities are equivalent to that of an average Australian 15-year-old.

East Asian education systems are heavily influenced by the ancient Chinese tradition of Confucianism, with its emphasis on respect for elders, harmony and collective values.
In practice, this was likely to mean clear and enforced classroom rules, a focus on manners, punctuality, respect for teaching staff, consequences for poor performance or incomplete homework and an enforced dress code, professor Baumann said.

Western education, on the other hand, was less concerned with formalities, respect for teachers and collective discipline, instead focusing on the individual child.
The often-heard counter argument is that Western systems are better at promoting play, creativity, innovation and questioning authority, which might have harder-to-measure benefits. But professor Baumann is sceptical about this.

“The likely outlook is that Western countries may sooner or later aspire to a balanced pedagogic approach to education, where the playful elements remain, but discipline might be tightened up again since the successes in Asia suggest strict discipline and a focus on academic performance ‘pay off’, and the results of our study point in that direction.”

Dr Jennifer Buckingham, education researcher from the Centre for Independent Studies, said it was important to “be cautious in making those broad comparisons when the demographics and the context is really different – it’s so hard to ascribe cause and effect when there are so many other factors at play”.

She suggested a key overlooked factor may be the high use of private tutoring in countries like Korea and Singapore, which could have a bigger role than the school systems in driving student outcomes.

However, “there’s not much doubt that families’ cultural emphasis on education is really important in terms of academic success”, she said.

“The value that’s placed on academic achievement that is seen in east Asian families is certainly a factor when you’re looking at the demographics of selective schools [in NSW] for example.”

The countries studied in the work ethic research were Australia, China, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Britain and the US, using surveys of at least 500 respondents per country.