What makes a good school? What makes a good teacher?
The creation of good schools is a long-term process and a good school is an aggregation of good classrooms in which effective teaching and learning are taking place, writes David Zyngier.
Which of the following may be the most complex or difficult task to achieve?
a. Sending rockets into the space;
b. Making an artificial heart;
c. Making the fastest super computer; or,
d. Ensuring real academic excellence of EACH student in EVERY classroom in your school?
The answer of course is (d) as all the other choices have already been achieved and even surpassed. Yet ensuring that every child maximises his or her learning and potential in every classroom in Australia is far from being achieved and is becoming more and more difficult.
The Gonski Review was all about how the inputs can be configured in different ways so that all children can have access to the best possible education, regardless of where they live, the income of their family or the school they attend.
As Jane Caro, writer, media commentator, lecturer and co-author of What Makes a Good School? tells us:
Parents spend a great deal of time and energy justifying their choice of school but I’ll let you into a little secret known only to the advertising industry. All purchase decisions (and choice of school is a purchase decision whether you pay fees or not) are made emotionally and then post-rationalised. So all that stuff you tell yourself about reputation, discipline, gifted and talented programs etc. may be comforting but it’s not really why you choose a school.
The differences between most schools are largely cosmetic. Compare two superficially very different girls’ high schools. The first school was a high-fee, prestigious private girls school, the second a bog standard public girls’ high school in the same suburb. Apart from the richness of racial and religious backgrounds in the public school, the difference between the intelligence, literacy and behaviour of the girls in what many would call a ‘good’ school and many a ‘not-so-good’ one was non-existent1.
It takes time
The creation of good schools is a long-term process. A good school is an aggregation of good classrooms in which effective teaching and learning are taking place – quality of classroom learning:
- Intellectual quality that produces deep understanding of concepts, skills and ideas.
- A supportive classroom environment characterised by positive relationships where learning is expected and supported.
- Connectedness and significance: learning needs to be meaningful to students and as much as possible anchored to their needs and passions.
- Engaging with student diversity: the most powerful lever for disadvantaged students.
Choice makes people anxious and too much choice makes people unhappy.
Market and advertising make us believe that the more you pay the better the school – the adage that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys – however the greater the hurdle doesn’t mean the school is any better.
Jane Caro suggests that the choices can be compared to supermarket shopping – the brand name products compared to the plain label – ignore the superficial marketing hype and fancy exteriors but carefully compare the contents – usually like schools the contents are equivalent.
We’ll always need to dig underneath the advocacy, the labels and the hype. When all factors are taken into account, there is a surprising lack of any significant relationship between different school types and levels of student achievement. Whatever the label, management and governance, most schools teach the same centralised curriculum with similarly trained teachers catering for mainstream students.
Some schools work hard to satisfy deeply held but often dated beliefs about what makes a good school – beliefs held not only by parents but also by grandparents who are often a soft touch for school fees.
It’s all about who you are!
If you want to know how your child will turn out – look in the mirror! The family background and parents have the absolute greatest influence on student outcomes, then the teacher, the principal, school resources and finally the child’s peers.
Choosing the right school
When choosing a school parents operate on two levels. They are concerned about the levels of student achievement in their chosen range of schools but, above this, they want to know about the social profile of the students already enrolled at each school. As parents, our concern about schools is often about who our kids will sit next to in class.
This isn’t an easy task: just about everyone has an agenda as well as an opinion. As Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne said we are all experts when it comes to education, “because we all have been to school!”
The differences between schools don’t amount to a great deal in educational terms. But there is no shortage of schools with special titles or labels that are apparently able to levitate student achievement, produce well-rounded citizens and ease our mounting anxieties as parents. There are endless debates about the merits of single-sex versus co-ed schools, public versus private, specialist versus comprehensive, religious versus secular, nearby versus distant, big versus small – and more recently, locally versus centrally controlled. Once you account for differences in inputs and advantages – including students, teachers and resources – the labels don’t add up to much at all.
The real social and academic differences between our schools are grounded in the family and social profiles of enrolled students. There is nothing new about that, but it is concerning that such differences are widening in our quasi-market school system. Nor is it new that the achievement of students is primarily generated by home background; in this respect Australia resembles the pattern found across the OECD. But Australia is different in a key respect: far more of our disadvantaged kids go to schools alongside their peers, and most advantaged kids are in schools with other advantaged kids. We are compounding, not reducing, the impact of socio-educational status.
Any school can be a good school
Any school can be a good school, one in which effective teaching and authentic learning are nurtured and constantly developed to help students achieve. The challenge for parents is to discover the real depth of student engagement and learning. In the process they have to reserve judgment about such things as raw test scores, student ranks, neat and full workbooks, docile students in neat rows and hours of homework.
Principals and teachers in good schools will talk about effective learning and what constitutes good teaching — in particular how professional teacher knowledge, practice and engagement works in their schools. Good teachers know their students and their subject matter, are themselves learners and work alongside colleagues to improve practice across the school.
- Good schools have strong and effective school leaders whose primary focus is on establishing a culture of learning throughout the school. The school is organised, and resources are allocated, in pursuit of this overarching purpose. The principal, with the support of the school leadership team, drives the development of school policies and sets and articulates goals for school improvement.
- A high priority is placed on professional learning, leadership and collaboration among all school staff. In highly effective schools, principals are in constant and meaningful communication with the school community and work to build partnerships beyond the school in pursuit of the school’s objectives. The principal must have the respect of students, parents, and staff with a vision, high expectations, and the ability to help others succeed. This person must be able understand people, and motivate them, creating a positive attitude throughout the building.
- Successful schools have a sense of trust built on the back of an honest and caring leader. Many factors go into helping a child become a productive adult, and there is no way one assessment a year can measure success or failure. The fact that so many people believe that one test on a couple of mornings can determine school quality, teacher quality, and student learning shows an alarming lack of understanding in what makes a good school.
- This factory model of assessment would have been great 50 years ago, when schools were modelled after and trained students for work in factories. However, that day has long passed. Leaders in education need to look at what it takes for students to succeed and help create schools to educate the students of today and tomorrow.
- In good schools learning is seen as the central purpose of school and takes precedence over everything else. They have the highest expectations for and of the school, teachers and students. High expectations are set for student learning, whether in classrooms or other learning contexts. There is a deep belief in the ability of every student to learn and to achieve high standards with appropriate and sensitive teaching. Class time is used as learning time; classrooms are calm and busy; and interruptions to learning are discouraged. Outstanding schools recognise and celebrate successful learning and high achievement. Only the best is good enough. Quality is expected, and nothing less is acceptable. Passion for excellence is a driving force each and every day. A good school has an involved staff working together, pushing themselves and their students to be the best. Failure is not an option for the teacher or the students.
- In good schools, teachers have a thorough and up-to-date knowledge of their subjects and a deep understanding of how students learn particular subjects.
- The best teachers work to improve their ability to teach. They read and explore the techniques used by others in a never-ending effort to better themselves and their skill. Effective teaching demands that the teacher be knowledgeable in the subject area. The teachers must have a detailed understanding of what is being taught.
- This understanding includes an appreciation of how learning typically proceeds in a subject and of the kinds of misunderstandings learners commonly develop. In these schools, teachers know their students well: their individual interests, backgrounds, motivations and learning styles. These schools insist on the mastery of foundational skills such as reading and numeracy, and also work to encourage high levels of critical thinking, creativity, problem solving and teamwork.
- Teachers in good schools encourage students to accept responsibility for their own learning and teach them how to continue learning throughout life. Students’ abilities and needs are different. To effectively teach all students, the school staff must understand this. The teaching and interactions with students must reflect the needs of each, with the understanding of each as an individuals.
- Good schools are characterised by outstanding school cultures. Most importantly students want to be there! Effective schools have a warm climate. Students feel welcome and know that the staff cares about them. Although there is pressure to perform, it comes in a way that promotes learning, with an expectation that students will excel and the support is provided to make it happen. In these schools students have a sense of belonging and pride.
- They enjoy learning and are engaged and challenged. The school provides a physical and social setting that is safe, well organised and caring.
- Values of respect, tolerance and inclusion are promoted throughout the school and cultural and religious diversity are welcomed and celebrated. In such schools there is a strong commitment to a culture of learning and continuous improvement and an ongoing search for information and knowledge that can be used to improve on current practice.
- No two classes, or two students are identical. A good school has teachers that understand this and differ instruction to best help students be the successful. Key concepts are presented in ways to enable visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners grasp it. Students are actively involved in learning with a variety of opportunities to grasp key concepts.
- Discipline should not be an issue. Students must respect others and failure to do so cannot be tolerated. Students must understand school and class rules and expectations, and adhere to them. When discipline is necessary, it is not vindictive, but just a consequence when a student does not do what is required.
- Good schools have well-developed systems for evaluating and monitoring their performance.
- They promote a culture of self-evaluation and reflection and collect and use data to inform decision making at all levels.
- They recognise the importance of providing meaningful performance information to a range of stakeholders, including parents.
- These schools place a high priority on the early identification and remediation of gaps and difficulties in student learning.
- They give timely feedback to students in forms that can be used to guide further learning, and they encourage students to develop skills in monitoring their own progress.
- Good schools have high levels of parent and community involvement.
- Parents are encouraged to take an active role in discussing, monitoring and supporting their children’s learning.
- Parents are involved in setting goals for the school and in developing school policies. The school itself is seen as an important part of the local community and these schools often find ways to involve business and community leaders in the work of the school, as well as to establish partnerships with other agencies and businesses to advance school goals.
- Not all parents have the same expectations of schools and parents often have different priorities for their children. But research suggests that parents have a shared interest in seeing their children attend school. They also look to schools to promote values such as respect for others, honesty, tolerance, fairness and the pursuit of excellence.
Dr David Zyngier was a teacher and principal, and now is a senior lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy at Monash University, Australia. His research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students but, in particular, how can these improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage. In 2012 he was awarded an Australian Research Council fellowship of $365,000 to research Democracy and Education. He is Co-director (with Dr Paul Carr) of the Global Doing Democracy Research Project, an international project examining perspectives and perceptions of democracy in education to develop a robust and critical democratic education with over 60 researchers in 20 countries. A book based on that research, Can Education make a difference? Experimenting with, and experiencing, democracy in Education, was published in June 2012. The ruMAD Program which he developed with teachers in 2001 was awarded the Garth Boomer Prize in 2009 for its excellence in collaborative teaching and learning. He developed the E-LINCs (Enhanced Learning through Networked Communities) program, winner of two prestigious School’s First Awards, in 2010 $25,000 seed grant and a National Impact Award of $50,000 in 2011. This project researches new approaches and innovative solutions to student disengagement using grass roots partnerships rather than top down government interventions. Dr Zyngier received a $22,000 grant from the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and a $30,000 grant from the Telematics Trust to pilot an on-line mentoring of graduate teachers in 2010-2012. Dr Zyngier was awarded an Erasmus Mundi Fellowship from the European Union to study in Paris in 2014. He is also on the editorial board of a number of prestigious education journals and a regular commentator for The Conversation and an expert commentator for the Australian Council of Education Leaders’ online journal.