Going Backward to Move Education Forward – Australia

Break something that isn’t broken. Throw away all the books. Let students decide what they want to learn. Yes, even accept (temporarily) lower test scores.

To most traditional educators, this sounds counterintuitive. But I challenge us to think differently. Can a temporary step backwards be the best way to change today’s education system?

Take Varsity College School in Queensland, Australia. Here, all 350 students use tablet technology. Students perform well. Most graduate and go on to a university. By most standards, Varsity College is a pretty innovative teaching environment.

But Principal Jeff Davis had a vision of moving beyond traditional, teacher-centric methods to create a student-centric learning environment. Davis held regular discussions with his teachers, challenging them to change how they were teaching. Through one such discussion, teachers decided to let students go home, watch TV, and find a topic they were interested in for a project. No structured assignment. TV. Teenagers. A very different, even scary, approach for the teachers.

What happened? Good things. In fact, one C-grade student was so inspired by the assignment, he wrote, produced and starred in a video about neuroplasticity. He had fun, learned a lot and even won a national Eureka Prize for his video.  Perhaps more significant, he raised the bar for his fellow students.

With run-away success and recognition like that, student-centric assignments at Varsity College must be the norm now, right? Not so fast, says Davis. Sure, one project like this is fine, but what about the standardized tests, the grades?  Teachers worry that any drop in performance is attributed to them, so they won’t implement these changes long-term at the risk of going backward.

The fact is, when it comes to improving education, we are our own worst enemy. Unions, governments, parents – “the system” – tell teachers that they are not allowed to fail. Yet, we all know that failure is a necessary and beneficial part of anything we do. Without failure, we cannot learn, we cannot grow, and we cannot get better.

So, what do we do? The answer isn’t clear, and it’s not easy.

There is one thing that is clear, and that’s if we set big expectations for our kids, they will reach or exceed them. To help kids do that, our teachers need to know that it’s ok to try something different – and it’s even ok to fail – if the end goal is a confident student who enjoys learning.

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2 Responses to Going Backward to Move Education Forward – Australia

  1. Thanks for your continued leadership Jeff. Look forward to visiting Australia in the new year to learn more.

  2. Thanks Jeff for your disruptive thinking. Its a challenge to bend school culture without necessarily tearing it. For me the approach is one of pressure+support applied unevenly…which seems to fly in the face of the ‘everyone-all-at-once’ model of whole school change…curious.

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