No matter where in the world we live, teachers are all very much the same, we all have the best interest of our students at our heart. We may believe different paths are best and will at times strongly disagree with each other on how to get there but ultimately we only want the very best for our students.
Three colleagues and myself had the wonderful opportunity to leave New Zealand and visit a number of schools in California, The Google Headquarters and attend the ISTE 2017 conference in San Antonio, TX.
It was heartening to hear consistently via the school principals that we visited that we all held similar views to what makes learning successful: relationships, communication, feedback/feedforward, content knowledge and an understanding of how different children learn to name just a few. While we tended to share and focus on the positives of our education systems we also shared many of the same concerns. These included issues such as dealing with the bureaucracy of Ministries/Departments of Education, parental pressure, lack of funding for things that really matter, mental health support and the biggest issue of all equity.
The PISA scores for the last 15 years have indicated that New Zealand has slipped from one of the top countries in the world to being in the top 15. We have a healthy skepticism of PISA and its importance and as the old saying goes, not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. But we are also not surprised that our results have gone down as this has coincided with greater financial inequity in New Zealand during this period and more children are now living in poverty.
New Zealanders (due our geographic location) tend to be great travelers and the four of us have travelled extensively around the world, but we were all struck by the poverty and homelessness that many Americans face. We struggled to see how schools can overcome this huge hurdle to ensure all children have access to high quality education. What was of greater concern to us was the general attitude of most educationalists we talked to, where that the blame was laid squarely on the shoulders of those who were in hardship rather than challenging themselves on what role society had had to play on their current situation.
One school that we visited, Bishop O’Dowd High School, in Oakland, California kept this at the forefront of their thinking when planning school programmes and developing their philosophy. An emphasis on having students from all walks of life and communities was seen as a benefit for all students and further enhanced the culture of the school.
We also had the pleasure to attend Easterbrook Elementary School in San Jose. It was great to engage with passionate educators who were putting the needs and interest of their students first and were prepared to put State testing in its rightful place as a necessary tool but not one which should drive the learning programmes in the school.
In New Zealand each school has a lot of autonomy over what, when and how we teach. They are run by the local community and overseen by the central government who provides guidelines of what needs to be covered and a significant set of rules involving finances, property, staffing and health and safety but by and large we are left on our own.
It was interesting to learn more about the “Districts” and the influence that the superintendent and its department has on the schools within the district. We wondered how superintendents/departments in large districts can make effective decisions for children from such a vast array of schools and backgrounds.
Our final school visit was to SF Brightworks (Tinkerschool) in central San Francisco with the school’s founder Gever Tulley. Our visit left us with more questions than answers due to their fascinating programme and also no students on site as it was at the end of the school year and they were setting up for their holiday programme. We found a lot of parallels in philosophy with our schools as they ran an integrated themed approach with a focus on skill development rather than content knowledge. We were surprised by how little emphasis was placed on digital technology and how much was placed on low tech making technology. We also wondered if the students ever got tired of making things and if they would prefer to play a musical instrument or a sport. This may well happen all the time, as I said we left with more questions than answers, but this school is well worth a visit if ever in San Francisco.
The highlight of the trip was a visit to Google HQ in Mountain View. Our schools place a lot of emphasis on the ever changing job market and the skills that will be needed in 2035 when our 5 year olds at school hit the workforce. This is especially important in New Zealand where we are so isolated and our economy needs to be dependent on smart economics and not just farming and tourism. (It is very also pretty and well worth the 20 hour flight!)
We were lucky enough to have time on the inside (unfortunately they have no official tours and you have to know someone who works there to get a tour). It was amazing and confronting to see 2035 in 2017.
There were many highlight on our tour. Spending time with one of the developers in the GAFE time was very reassuring as Google’s attitude and values towards learning is the same as ours. Visiting their makerspace “The Garage” was also fascinating as we had no idea that low tech played a major part in their developing of ideas. Lots of cardboard, play dough and basic 3D printers made it look more like one of our makerspaces rather than Google. But I think what really impressed us was seeing people working so collaboratively with the A3 approach of Anywhere, Anytime with Anyone as this gave us more reassurance that how we are teaching in our schools is the right approach to take. Whether people were doing their “Google Time” project or just collaborating on their ideas over a free coffee for the next big thing was truly inspirational!
A key message that we took away was “that it is our problem”. This is one of the basic tenets of Google.
This has made for some interesting discussions with our staff on our return when you look at it from an educational standpoint. For example, if a family is too poor to have books, then it is our problem.
ISTE itself was almost overwhelming with so much to see and do and we were glad that we had travelled as a team of four to spread ourselves around. We have all been able to take back ideas to our schools that will engage students from VR to drone to Lego WeDos.
It was also very interesting to see the trends taking part in education.
AI and personalising learning programmes
Coding (littleBits, Dash and Dot, Makey Makey, Edisons, Lego)
Reading and Searching
It was a long way to go for a conference but well worth it! The only down side we found was that the keynotes were average at best for such a large conference. But we are already planning our next trip to ISTE in 2019! In the meantime if anyone wants to visit New Zealand we would be more than happy to help organise school visits and provide advice on the best things to see and do.
Paddy Ford: Paddy is the principal of Balclutha Primary School in New Zealand and executive principal of Big River Cluster Community of Learning.