Sunday Star Times' article - response received from Wellington College Headmaster

By Lesley Murrihy | Posted: Monday November 2, 2015

Mr Roger Moses responded to Lesley Murrihy's comments regarding the front page Sunday Star Times' article about modern learning environments. Mr Moses asked for his article to be shared with the school community. His response and Lesley's further response are included below.

Link to Mr Moses' letter received 23 October 2015.

Reponse to Mr Moses by Lesley Murrihy below.

Kia ora Mr Moses

Thank you for your letter. I appreciate you taking the time to provide such a thorough response. In this - my response to your response – I will respond to some points you make. However, I am not wanting to be argumentative; instead, I am wanting to do as Ben Riley (2014) suggests, look for commonality and a way we can all move forward for the betterment of education for all students in New Zealand. My hope is that we won’t be involved in a competition over the coming years to see which cat catches the most mice (as per your quote) but that we will discover all that we have in common and, will, as a result, see education as a collaborative endeavour in which we all work together to create the best outcome for all students.

In response to my “opinion piece”, you comment that, “Perhaps what you really appear to dislike is that another group of your experienced colleagues, all running large and successful secondary schools, should beg to differ with you on current pedagogical trends.” In actual fact, I am very open to having robust conversations about what really matters in terms of pedagogical approaches in education. In fact I am not only open to it but I am desirous of it and in active pursuit of it. However, what I “dislike”, or at least fail to comprehend, is that you and your colleagues feel entitled to speak for modern learning environments all over New Zealand and that you would tell me what I believe educationally. What I fail to understand: firstly, are the repeated assumptions in the Sunday Star Times' article that teachers are more “absent” in modern learning environments than in more traditional classrooms; secondly, in your response, the assumption that Direct Teacher Instruction is not pedagogically important in modern learning environments; and, thirdly, also in your recent offering, your assumption that we, in modern learning environments are not evidence-based or scientific in our approach to developing our ways of thinking and working. It is an odd thing that you would argue for schools being able to make their own decisions about physical environments – be self-managing – and then proceed to make blanket statements about the pedagogical approaches of modern learning environments. I imagine that all modern learning environments, just like all “traditional” schools, have slightly or even highly differing approaches.

I am not and have never been a blind follower of the latest pedagogical trends. Nor do I feel any need to defend my views of education “to the death” because I am always considering them and they are continually taking shape. In fact, I completely agree with Steven Pinker (2013) when he says, “The world does not go out of its way to reveal its workings, and even if it did, our minds are prone to illusions, fallacies and superstitions….Any movement that calls itself “scientific” but fails to nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs…is not a scientific movement.” I am a social scientist. I use evidence-based practice and I am continually responsive to evidence as it emerges as well as to the changing and emerging contexts - local, national and supranational. As an innovative or modern learning environment, we take a strongly evidence-based, scientific approach to our developing thinking and practices.

So, this brings me to the specific issue of personalisation of learning. You say you fundamentally disagree with the Ministry’s assumption that personalisation of learning is the way forward. To support this view you use John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning’ work and Ben Riley’s (2014) paper ‘Science, Data and Decisions in New Zealand’ to argue that Direct Teacher Instruction is key to successful learning. The problem is that your argument (and Riley’s) assumes that Direct Teacher Instruction, which Hattie says has a size effect of .83 in terms of learning, is not key to personalisation of learning or to teaching and learning in a Modern Learning Environment. You direct me to Riley’s (2014) writing about personalisation of learning where he takes a quote from Boldstad et al (2012) as a definition of personalisation of learning and then proceeds to use it to undermine the validity of the approach saying that we need to move beyond ideology to the productive world of theory-based research. It is interesting to me that Riley takes the least precise descriptors contained within the article to make his argument and also fails to note that Bolstad et al. are not offering this as a substantive and precise definition, but rather as an “emerging cluster of new ideas, beliefs, knowledge, theories and practices” (p.1) which, as yet, “are poorly understood, and yet to be fully implemented” (p. 24). This cluster of ideas provides a vision for education in which the needs of EACH and EVERY student are being met and in which students are gaining increasing agency and are learning to understand learning and themselves as learners. This cluster of ideas is not meant to be scientific but philosophical, visionary and aspirational. However, to my mind, science becomes essential in the process of actually working out what this looks like in practice and in how we combine what we currently know about learning with these emerging ideas. Therefore, a substantive and precise definition of personalisation of learning does not yet exist – it is emerging as schools, like ours, are using an evidence-based, scientific approach to developing it. In our school, Direct Teacher Instruction has never been under question but remains a hugely important aspect of personalisation of learning. As per Biesta (2014), the teacher’s role is to bring something new to the learning situation and the development of skills, knowledge and aptitudes is still important. Further, at Amesbury School we do teach to commonalities and scaffold for differences to ensure the needs of all students are being met. We do not talk about students being “in charge of their learning”, rather we talk about students being “inside” their learning - with their teachers and parents. However, we are asking the question of what Direct Teacher Instruction looks like when you are also interested in students being “inside” their learning and developing increasing agency? Maybe it needs to look a little different than it has traditionally looked; maybe it needs to be blended with other approaches to ensure it doesn’t militate against the goal of student “insiderness”.

A scientific approach is hugely important. But, I think, that vision, philosophy and moral purpose always lead the way (as they should in human endeavours) and the science follows. As science, philosophy and purpose interact together in practice, we come to understand our philosophies and purposes better and we also develop the evidence-base for effective implementation. Making decisions about the kind of world (or education) we want for ourselves and future generations is central to being fully human and transcends science. We then use science to develop the evidence base about how best to create that world.

There is nothing more needed in New Zealand education at this current juncture than a rigorous and robust dialogue that brings together the range of disparate voices (and their evidence and experiences) about the purposes of education and effective pedagogical approaches and practices for our 21st century learners. This is essential, not so one school can out-perform another; rather, its purpose would be to improve outcomes for all students. We need the evidence from a range of schools’ experiences to help determine the best way forward for our schooling system. Given that you are a highly successful school principal, I acknowledge that your voice and the voices of your secondary colleagues are hugely important in such a dialogue, but they would not be privileged. Your experiences would certainly provide important evidence towards our collective understanding of effective pedagogical approaches, but they would not define it. I am eager to join with you and a range of educators from diverse schools in a facilitated dialogue with the view to building consensus about what really matters in education in New Zealand at this time. This would not be a ‘traditional classroom’ vs ‘MLE’ dialogue but would be about what our collective goals in education are and what we understand about how to achieve them. We would need to come together with open minds - understanding that all our minds are “prone to illusions, fallacies and superstitions” as Pinker (2013) said.

In the meantime, I would simply ask that you do not make assumptions and cast aspersions about the pedagogical approaches being taken in modern learning environments around New Zealand; and that, rather than taking a deficit approach, you would do us the courtesy of speaking from the assumption that we are capable educators who don’t follow blindly, but are concerned with both science and humanities as we develop our educational approaches - just as you are.

Kind regards

Lesley Murrihy