‘Needs’ or ‘Wants’

I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve explored with students the difference between ‘needs’ and ‘wants’. It’s often a very entertaining activity, their definitions are generally very different from my own, but then after a while we reach an agreement about what these terms mean for them and for children all over the world. (For those of you who also teach this topic, there’s some great resources from the UN, here’s an example.) I wonder though if it would be worth doing a bit of a revision on these concepts for adults, particularly adults involved in education, and even more particularly those who have a say in education funding.

Last week I attended a conference about education. I was very lucky to be able to attend, and it really was inspiring hearing from so many educators about the difference they are making in the lives of students all over Australia. I’m looking forward to reflecting on the ideas with my own school team and really thinking about what we can learn from these experiences. However, while there were a number of sessions focused on teaching and learning, a significant amount were about capital works building projects. I probably should have expected this, given that the conference promotional material talked about ‘learning spaces’ but I naively took the view that learning spaces are about so much more than bricks and mortar. Oops. It was while listening to these talks, that a few common themes emerged. Firstly, if your students are to have any hope of learning, you must knock down walls. Physical walls, not the metaphorical ones. Secondly, go forth and purchase curved furniture in all colours of the rainbow, students will not learn if your furniture is rectangular and dull. Thirdly, if you have a 25 metre pool you will need to build a 50m pool. This, my fellow educators, is a need.

Apologies for going somewhat heavy on the sarcasm just then, but this was the message that was presented by most, not all, of the speakers. It will shock no one to know that most of these presenters came from independent schools. What saddened me to my core was the fact that these renovations were enabled, at least in part, by our current school funding model. The fact that one school is able to determine a 50m pool as a need highlighted for me the complete absurdity of this system. There is absolutely, in no way that this meets anyone’s definition of a ‘need’. What it does point to is the gross inequity about what school needs are perceived to be by different members of the community. There is such disparity in this that I really have no words left to describe how upset it makes me feel. 

As I reflected on this situation and tried to analyse my response to it, a few other things became clear. The first being, that obviously no one ‘needs’ a 50m pool, this is by anyone’s definition a ‘want’, no child’s education is going to be improved by having one or hampered by not having one. Let’s take that off the table. The big question is, what to do students really ‘need’ in order to learn. This is far too big a question for me to answer here, there are reams of research about the answer to that, some of the consistent themes are: a teacher who cares; feedback; a safe and supportive learning environment (no mention of rainbows or curves); opportunities to make choices; relationships; authentic experiences and the list goes on. The thing to note is that all of these, all of them are possible in any learning environment regardless of the furniture. What I wonder is, are we being distracted from the main thing, are our heads being turned by colourful furniture, glass walls and whiteboard paint? What we are looking for is the best education possible for our students. Is this focus on buildings just another way of schools who have the money finding a way to differentiate themselves from schools with less money because they know, the research tells us it’s so, that once socio-economic status and parental levels of education are taken out of the mix, private schools make minimal (if any) difference to the educational outcomes of their students. Is furniture the new battle ground? Is it a case of the Emperor’s New Chairs?

I do believe in the difference that learning spaces make to student engagement and I have removed tables and chairs from my room and am exploring different options for the classroom environment. I did it on a $300 budget. Do I need $30000? No. Would it be nice to have that money? Absolutely! Would it make any difference to the learning outcomes of my students? The jury’s out on that one. I don’t need money to change the learning space. The fact that independent schools are choosing to spend their money that way is because they want to, and because they’ve got the money. Why do they have that money? Because our current funding system is not not needs based. The biggest thing I took away from the conference was just how very inequitable our funding system is. My students don’t need sofas and glass walls on which to write, they do need a system that gives them a fair chance at competing with their peers who already have the odds stacked in their favour. Imagine what an equitable funding system could do for a system that already shows its strength in the results it is achieving. Let’s say no to pools, and yes to equity.

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This is my classroom. It looks different at the end of every day as students engage with the space and make choices about where and how they learn best. That’s the point. No pools needed.

 

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‘My School’ isn’t really about my school

Last week I had the privilege of speaking at a local preschool information night. I had been invited to talk about school readiness from a school perspective, to try and allay some of the concerns parents have in terms of what their children need to know before starting school (nothing, in case you’re wondering) and to show that early years centres and schools work together for the best interests of their students. I was excited about this, supporting parents in ensuring their child makes a smooth and positive transition to school is something I’m passionate about. I love visiting other settings and seeing the great things other educators are doing and it’s exciting to start building meaningful relationships with our local centres.

The first part of the evening went well, there were jokes about shoes and lunch boxes, wry smiles when talking about who is more anxious starting school; the parent or the child, and a generally relaxed atmosphere. I had made a conscious effort not to talk explicitly about what happens at my school, this wasn’t a promotional activity, but had talked generally about what schools do to support transition. Sadly, the very first question at the end of the session changed the tone markedly. It was “Why are your NAPLAN scores so much lower than everyone else’s?”.

Talk about getting straight to the point. Except it’s not the point, not by a long shot. After taking a very deep breath, I proceeded to explain the contextual issues: ICSEA value, statistically invalid sample size due to small cohort etc and attempted to explain that this information probably doesn’t provide parents with much useful data on which to make a judgement about their child’s school. I was then met with: “But I’m a numbers person, numbers make sense to me.” At which point I wanted to curl up on the floor and weep. Weep for the system that sees parents of 3 year olds sitting on websites comparing schools based on a test that two classes in a school sat, on one day out of almost 200 in the school year, looking at numbers but unable to place them in context because the way in which those numbers are presented makes it seem cut and dried and weep because at no point did anyone ask a question about the emotional and social wellbeing of students.

Until this happened I’d been fairly ambivalent about My School. As part of my Masters I’d studied the development of it, I’d used the information on it when applying for jobs and I use it when preparing reports at work. What I hadn’t realised is that I approach this data with a fair amount of caution, I look at all the contextual information, I look for patterns not isolated scores. What is now apparent to me is that this is not what happens when non-educators look at this website. They see raw scores with angry red backgrounds to highlight just how very poorly a school is doing. They compare local schools not realising that even within a relatively small geographic area there can be vast differences in the demographic of school communities. They look at the angry red backgrounds and judge. They judge the students, the teachers and the community.

This saddens me. It saddens me because it means that the government and media and parents themselves have conditioned themselves to the point where a school is seen solely in terms of a number. For me education isn’t about numbers, it’s so much more than that. What about developing resilient and independent learners who respond flexibly to the changing world around them? What about tolerance and awareness of social issues and differences, developing citizens who are respectful, engaged and active members of their community? What about happiness and joy of learning? I’m proud to teach at a school that serves an incredibly diverse community. I’m proud every time I watch students interact with their peers who have specific needs or challenges. I’m proud when I see students excited about learning, making connections, solving problems and engaging in community action. I’m proud of my school’s NAPLAN results because I know the hard work and commitment they represent to an education that’s about more than a test on a single day, but an education that’s life long and empowering. What a shame that ‘My School’ isn’t really about my school at all.