Mount Stromlo High School welcomes both Australian and international students to its Canberra campus, where classes incorporate 21st-century technology with comprehensive education in the timeless skills of mathematics, language, humanities, and the arts. Dr. Michael Kindler, Mount Stromlo’s principal, recognizes the importance of understanding past, present, and future in order to develop a truly effective educational program. We asked him to explain his philosophy.
UT: On the school’s website, you mention that the school received a powerful telescope from the ANU Mt. Stromlo Research Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, and you speak about the connection between the past and the future. How does that perspective inform the way classes are taught at your school?
The first and obvious answer is that our school is an early adopter of Science in the Australian Curriculum. In this regard, Astronomy lends itself ideally as this science includes physics, chemistry, mathematics, archaeology, even history. What the School has to consider is that by the time students complete year 10, they must have had broad exposure to a balanced science curriculum as prescribed. This they indeed have. Where our school is able to capitalize on the partnership with the ANU Research Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, is in several ways. One way is because the ANU gave us the Dobsonian telescope. Another way is two years ago, 6 June 2012, we ensured that every student saw the Transit of Venus, a once in a life time event. A third way this year is that through a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), entitled The 10 Greatest Unsolved Mysteries of the Universe, developed by Nobel Laureate Prof Brian Schmidt, 17 students undertook this one semester course, all delivered online. The Assessment was also completed online, and 10 students passed. The course required considerable mathematics, and was quite challenging.
Arguably the best way an astronomical perspective informs the way we teach is by having teachers who are enthusiastic about the last great frontier – space! We are fortunate to have a Science teacher who is an ardent astronomer himself, and his enthusiasm and energy infects students. That, and having several parents who are astronomers because they work for the ANU and live in the area also helps. Astronomy is a growth industry, given that everyone’s GPS is synchronised to a commercial satellite or other. We deliver our curriculum using online textbooks, YouTube clips and teacher generated materials as well as digital learning objects which are accessed through Scootle from Education Resources Australia, a data base of units of work that most Australian educational jurisdictions contribute to. Even textbooks can now be purchased at a fraction of a hard copy price. Pearson is a leading Australian publisher and not the only one in this regard. MacMillan and Oxford and Longman are not far behind.
UT: Rather than focusing solely on core subjects like reading, writing, and science, you actively promote students’ involvement in music, theatre, and visual arts. Doesn’t this mean that you have less time to teach key skills like mathematics and literacy?
This question is predicated on a couple of fallacies. The first is not recognising that students who are proficient in the arts and physical education are not also proficient in literacy and numeracy. The fact is that research shows a correlation between students who are successful in one learning domain are also successful in another. In other words, success breeds success, or success in one area does not preclude success in another. This is the principle that students can be polymaths, skilled in several learning areas. The other fallacy is to believe that one domain gets more time than another. In fact, the current timetable is one that holds parity of esteem, that is, equal time for each learning area without privileging any one over another, or short changing one for the sake of the other learning area.
UT: You’ve gotten rid of your blackboards, and provided all classrooms with interactive whiteboards instead – and the whole school is a wireless network hub. Did you experience any resistance or concern from the teachers or parents about this emphasis on digital learning technology?
The short answer is that holding this approach was a process of self-selection: if teachers did not like this approach, they were free to leave or transfer. In fact, this did not happen. Issuing every teacher with an iPad was well received, because it extended their teaching repertoire. Every teacher further has an Apple Lap top computer issued to them with which they can work in a dual operating system (by selecting Apple OS or Windows). This jurisdiction’s system-wide network further is such that using Enclave, that is a remote access Citrix digitally based secure device, they can log in from home into the school’s network. This gives them access to reports, data bases and provides enormous variety of ways of working anywhere, anytime. In practice, it is true to say that some teachers take to technology faster than others. So train the trainer is an approach we take that gets everyone mobile with this, some sooner, some later. Not going down this path jeopardises a work environment where the kids are digitally more dexterous than the teachers, and we can’t let that happen, can we?! So we are discussing nothing less than a paradigm shift by which we move an entire learning community forward, ensuring a quality education for every child.
UT: Students are generally 12 or 13 years old when they arrive at Mt. Stromlo, and in today’s world that means they’ve had around ten years of experience with computers, keyboards, and digital devices in general. But do they all know how to type properly, or do you still see a lot of thumb-texting and two-finger hunt-and-pecking?
Speaking as a practicing (less than 10 finger) typist of several decades of experience, my (what you might imply to be a) finger dexterity or mobility impediment has not prevented me from doing my job, completing my PhD or living a rewarding and fulfilling life. In fact, I regret back in the 1970s having to teach typing, because that skill has taken care of itself. There are many typing software applications and software versions available on the market for those who want to upskill themselves, and most of these are free. Some do, some type however they best see fit. We do not discriminate for or against a 10 finger typist, or a digitally less successfully adjusted typist. What we are interested in is the quality of what is written. The meaning precedes form, if you like to express this in terms of Platonic philosophy.
UT: You have implemented a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) program in the school, with the goal of improving student outcomes at all grade levels. How does making sure every student has an iPad in the classroom achieve this goal?
There are several reasons.
One is that iPads are very user friendly, appearing to make certain tasks easier than traditional paper and pen. For example, we have a Learning Management System in place which is electronic storage in the cloud. This allows students to keep an online diary, assignment, unit outlines and feedback from teachers all in the one place. To our surprise, we have found that students with learning difficulties have taken to this like a duck to water! So have our Year 7 students, and parents have been most supportive and have come to the party by purchasing the device. Secondly, we have certain learning programs, such as Mathletics and Spelladrome which can be accessed anywhere, anytime and this expands the learning environment for students. Thirdly, an iPad, coupled to a wireless router, makes researching and generating work that much more convenient. Of course students already have access to laptops at school and at home, having an iPad is simply adding another learning tool to their learning satchel. It is our experience that the predominant technology trend if for individuals to prefer personalizing their digital devices (such as by customizing what Apps they do and do not want on their device). I recall a time back in the 1980s when word processors became fashionable that contain spellchecking software. Anything that makes learning easier is to be embraced. In this vein, unlike more traditional schools, we allow students to bring their smart phones to school. Provided they abide by the traffic light system (red, not in this lesson, amber, only with teacher permission, green used for educational purposes allowed – no social networking).
Why are we digital? Because the digital revolution is the sequel to the white goods revolution. It is here to stay, it is user-friendly, enables instant messaging, and generally makes students their parents and teachers more connected with the world. Prof Geoff Blainey coined the phrase the Tyranny of Distance by which he referred to Australia being far from the more settled and developed continents and therefore developmentally and culturally delayed. Well with Skype, email and instant messaging this is no longer the case! Even movies can now get sent around the globe with a touch of a keystroke or mouse. That includes blogs, news, self-generated film, etc. The 21st Century is already here, so we need to meet the learning expectations of the NEXT generation!
Cross-posted on the Ultimate Spelling blog.
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