What we want to say right now to Sahlberg and Goldfeld

Schools are places for all kinds of success, including academic achievement.

In their recent article, “If not now, then when is the right time to re-envisage what schools could be?” Professors Sahlberg and Goldfeld rightly shine a light on falling academic achievements among Australian students according to both national and international measures. 

Importantly, they note that these trends, seen across literacy, numeracy, and science, have stubbornly persisted in the face of increased per capita education spending. What is surprising to us though, is that Professors Sahlberg and Goldfeld seek solutions to academic struggles not in improved classroom instruction, but in extra funding and focus on wellbeing, without considering the contribution to wellbeing made via academic success. 

We agree with Sahlberg and Goldfeld’s assertion that many policy initiatives have overlooked the “interconnection between health, wellbeing, and learning”. There seems to be an assumption, however, that an uplift in educational outcomes and equity can be achieved without the discomfort and upheaval of focusing on low-impact instructional practices (reading being a key case in point). One cannot ignore that the relationship between wellbeing, engagement and academic success is complex. We hold that strategic investment and accountability for health in schools—without investment and accountability for improving instruction—will fail to shift the dial upwards on Australian students’ falling educational outcomes and growing inequities (see here). 

Perhaps what is missing from Sahlberg and Goldfeld’s position is the notion that responsive, effective and evidence-informed teaching plays a pivotal role in fostering students’ academic achievement, self-efficacy and thus wellbeing. Longstanding research into the health outcomes for individuals without key educational capacities reveals the protection that success in reading confers on wellbeing across the lifespan, not merely during the school years. There are also examples in our own backyard of schools in disadvantaged communities turning around wellbeing and behavioural challenges via the vehicle of improved instructional practices. Without policy support and investment in teacher professional learning however, such transformations are difficult to take to scale. These initiatives into professional practice also entail three to five years of solid investment of time and instructional coaching, which is far less attention-grabbing in brief news cycles and political campaigns, than bids for a wholesale priority shift from instruction to wellbeing.  

The vision presented in Sahlberg and Goldberg’s article highlights the importance of responsive and effective teaching to enhance children’s sense of success and confidence while meeting their wellbeing needs. We argue that, somewhat ironically, one of the best ways to meet children’s wellbeing needs is for schools to remain focussed on their primary purposes: ensuring all children learn to read, write, do maths, and gain the other capacities they need to succeed in life. Our nation’s performance in these key learning areas create a stark picture of haves and have nots with regards to this primary goals of education.

Promoting the health and wellbeing of students is undeniably important, but it is crucial that the core purposes of education are not diluted or compromised in these endeavours. We already have ambitious goals to deliver a world-class education to all students, with significant work still to do to realise these aspirations.  

Blurring the boundaries between the roles of educators and health professionals could potentially lead to attenuation of efforts to strengthen instructional capacity of our teaching workforce. Teachers are already under immense pressure with a wide range of pedagogical and administrative responsibilities. If the expectations placed on teachers expand to encompass mental health supports beyond their training and expertise, this creates a further risk of diverting their attention and resources away from effective teaching and learning.

We cannot see a case for a focus on health and wellbeing without considering the impact of the ways in which precious instructional time is used. Students have long been subjects of social and pedagogical experiments in education systems, typically without ethical or empirical oversight. Neither children nor their parents are given opportunities to give or withhold consent to many policy change experiments and taxpayers are asked to believe that as the problem grows, so too the financial investment for its downstream “fix” must grow.  

We do not agree that “bold new ways of thinking about children, their schooling and what it takes to secure healthier and happier futures for all of them” are needed. This is an invitation to a populist “re-imagining” rather than a commitment to translating into practice solid scientific evidence about human learning and self-regulation, and ways in which such knowledge can be utilised in all classrooms. Insights from such research have been missing from teacher pre-service education in Australia and may well be contributing to high rates of teacher burn-out and attrition from the profession.

It is a given that schools need to be places of physical, social, and mental health promotion. Against this backdrop, they then need to be meeting children’s human and legislative rights to an education. This means students emerging at least proficient in core areas of the curriculum, as a gateway to a lifetime of learning and social, cultural, economic, and civic engagement. 

Our biggest concern is the potential for well-meaning schools and systems to be wrapped up in ambitious health goals for their students, while tragically under-responding to the learning needs of the children in their care—given that success in learning can make its own independent contribution to wellbeing. 

From left to right: Nathaniel Swain is a senior lecturer in La Trobe University’s School of Education. He founded the national community of teachers and registered charity calledThink Forward Educators, and produces a regular blog for teachers known as the Cognitorium.  Follow him on LinkedIn or on Twitter@NathanielRSwain. Pamela Snow is professor of cognitive psychology in the School of Education at the Bendigo campus of La Trobe University, Australia and co-director of the SOLAR Lab (Science of Language and Reading). Her research has been funded by nationally competitive schemes and concerns the role of language and literacy skills as academic and mental health protective factors in childhood and adolescence. Tanya Serry is associate professor (Literacy and Reading) in the School of Education and co-director of the SOLAR Lab. She has taught in the Discipline of Speech Pathology. Her research interests centre on the policy and practices of evidence-based reading instruction and intervention practices for students across the educational lifespan. Tessa Weadman is a Lecturer in English, Literacy and Pedagogy in the School of Education at La Trobe University. She is a member of La Trobe University’s SOLAR Lab. Tessa’s research interests span across preschool and school-age language and literacy development. Eamon Charles is the academic intern in the La Trobe SOLAR Lab. He is an experienced school-based speech-language pathologist with special interest in the role of literacy as a protective factor in the context of childhood adversity.

If not now, then when is the right time to re-envisage what schools could be?

The cold fact is that despite continuous reforms and growing investments over the past two decades, educational performance – and especially equitable performance – of Australia’s schools isn’t improving. Indeed, in many ways it is getting worse.

Consider these statistics. Since 2000 Australia’s PISA scores have dropped 33 – 24 points in maths, reading, and science. Students’ performance in literacy and numeracy since 2008 when National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) was inaugurated has been stagnant or declining (ACARA database). During the same time total education spending per student has gone up by 46 per cent adjusted to 22 per cent increase in the number of students (Rice, Edwards, & McMillan, 2019).

Additionally, there are large achievement gaps between different equity groups, such as rural and urban students, Indigenous and non-Indigenous students, and socio-educationally disadvantaged and other students (Australian Government, 2023).

Together with these inconvenient trends, we are seeing alarming signs in declining student health and wellbeing. Anxiety, depression, and conduct disorders are leading mental health concerns among our youth. For example, one in seven 4-17-year-olds was found to have a mental disorder. One in six adolescents reports problematic levels of loneliness (Lim, Eres, & Peck, 2019).

Leaders and professionals in the Australian health and education sectors have been striving to provide best possible care and learning for every child. While there has been progress made for some, these efforts are not matching realities as well as they could despite increased spendings on both health and education. Doing more of what we have done before is clearly not the best way to make school a better place to improve student learning and wellbeing.  

In our Discussion Paper titled “Reinventing Australian schools for the better wellbeing, health, and learning of every child” (Sahlberg et al., 2023) we outline a new vision for uplifting student learning, wellbeing, and health in our schools. We argue that the core purpose of schooling needs to shift from primarily focusing on narrow academic intelligence to equal value learning, wellbeing and health outcomes for balanced whole-child development and growth. 

What might this look like in practice? Rather than trying to simply jump to the solution, we instead suggest adopting a whole-child and whole-school approach as a leading principle for change. A whole-child approach requires schools to fully emphasise the complete scope of a child’s needs and being, including cognitive, social, emotional, physical, ethical, and psychological, rather than concentrating dominantly on only part of a child. A whole-school approach means the responsibility for developing and meeting the needs of the whole child are shared in a coherent way, equally by all at the school and potentially beyond. 

We believe a whole-child and whole-school approach optimises the opportunities for all children to grow up as the individuals they want to become.

Generally speaking, in Australia, public policies to improve education outcomes for all have overlooked the interconnection between health, wellbeing, and learning. Although well intended, health and wellbeing initiatives in Australian schools are often separate projects, courses, or reaction opportunities to those who are at risk or already have health and wellbeing issues. We suggest that health should be viewed as an essential future skill that all children should learn also in school. 

If not now, then when is the right time to re-envisage what schools could be? Together with the whole-child and whole-school approach our Discussion Paper offers four other principles to support uplifting learning, wellbeing, and health of all children in Australian schools.

1. Co-designed, evidence-based, and flexible learning and wellbeing approaches

All children should be supported to achieve health, wellbeing and learning goals in school that matter to them in ways that work for them; keeping them engaged and motivated to live, learn and be well.

2. Health and wellbeing as essential 21st century skills

Health and wellbeing should be seen as outcomes of school education of equal importance to literacy, numeracy and other academic domains. This includes learning skills in digital, mental, socio-emotional, nutritional, and physical wellbeing for all children as early as possible, in developmentally appropriate ways. 

 3. Building an engaging culture of health, wellbeing and learning in school

A safe, inclusive, positive, engaging and healthy school culture throughout the whole school matters to support the development of the whole child. 

4. Partnerships between services, families, and schools 

Schools should not be isolated silos. They are important community assets. In our vision, they are community centres or hubs, effectively and collaboratively meeting local children’s needs through relationships and partnerships between community members, one of which is the school.

The key to transforming Australian education to be fairer and better for all is more inclusive and informed grassroot conversations. The vision of more holistic and equitable Australian school is not just a dream, it is mission possible. A whole-child and whole-school approach to improve children’s health, wellbeing, and learning has a solid foundation in research and practice around the world. 

The principles and call to action we have outlined would not require discarding everything we currently do, nor simply ask more of educators in the current context. But it would encourage us to stop doing anything that does not support a whole-child and whole-school approach in schools to address particular child, school and community needs. Most of all, it requires bold new ways of thinking about children, their schooling and what it takes to secure healthier and happier futures for all of them.

Generally, we argue, educators and policymakers should see themselves as having a wider responsibility for all children and young people, not just narrow academic learning of those at their own schools. This is the time to restore meaning to school as a place of shaping well-educated, healthy, and conscious generations, and – most of all – happy children. 

Dr. Pasi Sahlberg is a professor of educational leadership at the University of Melbourne where he leads research on learning through play, growing up digital, and equity in education. His other fields of expertise are whole-system change, teacher education and development, cooperative learning, and teaching mathematics.

Professor Sharon Goldfeld is a paediatrician and director, Centre for Community Child Health (CCCH) the Royal Children’s Hospital and Theme Director, Population Health at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. Her research program focuses on investigating, testing and translating sustainable policy relevant solutions that eliminate inequities for Australia’s children.

One powerful way to beat the trauma of school transition with joy and fun

On the Monday post lockdown, schools again reverberated with the sounds of all their kids in the playground. In this pandemic much has changed but perhaps none more than schools and the work of teachers. For many parents, teachers and students there will be justifiable anxiety about what students have missed out on. There will be no doubt be a  rush in some classrooms to cram missed syllabus content into kids (which will soon be forgotten) as well as re-establish routines. There might be a better way to manage the return to schools by looking at what  our neighbours across the ditch have done and are planning when they reopen later this year. 

Schools in Aotearoa New Zealand have used the arts and creativity to support students and teachers make a meaningful transition back to classroom learning. An on line resource, called Te Rito Toi was created by the University of Auckland, in partnership with the NZ Principals Federation and the the teachers union that represents over 90% of all Primary teachers. The site provides lesson plans and advice for teachers to use the arts and creativity to help students reflect on their lockdown experiences and consider how they might use those experiences to make their learning more fruitful as they meet their teachers and classmates again. 

A central pillar Te Rito Toi is that arts-informed curricular approaches are powerful for individual and community recovery after disaster, strengthening social support and building hope.

For students it is a gentle way back into schools that promotes opportunities for students to create and reflect on how the world has changed during lockdown and at its heart children catch up with relationships before catching up with learning. 

For students, it is a gentle way back into schools . . . children catch up with relationships before catching up with learning.

The program is based on decades of international research into what the arts do, that they qualitatively shift the kinds of talk that happen in classrooms and provide students with opportunities to recognise how the pandemic has disrupted their lives and schooling. It also provides creative processes for them to respond to their experiences as they re-join their school communities. 

In 2020 the University of Auckland team (who developed the program) carried out a research project with eight schools around Aotearoa about the use of Te Rito Toi in schools. It found that the lockdowns were just another layer of trauma along with multiple traumas happening in the lives of children and their families-the pandemic just exacerbated what was already happening. This was especially true in areas where Covid hit hard and where there are existing traumas such as poverty and dislocation. 

When children are busy working hands-on in the arts, teachers observed that it was easier to have meaningful one on one conversations about their worries and concerns. This research demonstrates that the arts provide a space for safe dialogue with the adult teachers about their anxieties such as ‘will my grandad die? What will happen if they do?’ All the big questions best handled outside a whole class discussion. The research found that coming back to school to some joy and fun, along with the excitement of painting, drawing, dancing and moving was critical in supporting student wellbeing.  Many teachers in this study, recognising the trauma of transition decided to put aside those more formal kinds of structures to excite kids about being back at school. 

In New Zealand Te Rito Toi has been very popular. The lesson plans feature different mediums of expression and provide ways for children to build relationships, explore and describe emotions, engage with possibility, and reimagine the world. The Te Rito Toi team have delivered webinars to over 40,000 teachers around the world that have inspired similar resources in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Hungary. The Te Rito Toi online resources have been used in the US, Canada and Australia. This enthusiastic take up recognises that while routine and syllabus content are critical, they are not enough to support this massive transition and readjustment. The NZ Ministry of Education have joined the Principals Federation, the teacher unions in endorsing  the approach for schools in Auckland when they return after months of lockdown. 

Te Rito Toi focusses on classroom-based curriculum resource post-crisis. Schools cannot go back to ‘business as usual’ post-disaster and resume normal routines as if nothing has happened. They must address with children the fact that the world has changed and help their students make sense of that change. These resources provide ways for children to reflect and create on their own experiences in a safe way and helps them to make sense of how they might be feeling. As our classrooms spring back to life we might look across the ditch to see how a dose of creativity and the arts can make spaces for our young people to process, reflect and respond to the changing world around them rather than just expecting them (and us) to just get on with it.  

The CREATE Centre hosted a Webinar, Coming Back To School Through The Arts, featuring Prof. Peter O’Connor(University of Auckland) and Prof. Julie Dunn (Griffith University) in October, with discussion of some of the resources from Te Rito Toi and how they can be used effectively to support young people returning to school. Professors Peter O’Connor and Julie Dunn highlighted how critical attending to the intrapersonal and interpersonal capacities and needs of children rather than just their ‘academic’ needs. The webinar helped educators understand the background and applications of this arts education resource in and beyond Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Dr Michael Anderson is Professor of Arts and Creativity Education at The University of Sydney and Co-Director of The CREATE Centre.

Professor Peter O’Connor is the Director of the Centre for Arts and Social Transformation at the University of Auckland and an Advisory Board member of the CREATE Centre

Playground duty really is quality time: how joyful learning happens outside the classroom

The Quality Time Action Plan is described by the department of education as an approach intended to reduce and simplify administrative processes for teachers and provide them with more time for “high value tasks”.  It is here that I have a quibble with this document and its definition of playground duty or supervision at lunch and recess as a “non-teaching activity”. I see this definition as problematic and at odds with the important role teachers play on school playgrounds and the learning that takes place in this setting.

Teaching does not just happen in the classroom 

The playground is one of the most important places of learning, it is here that children and young people develop socially, physically and practice a degree of autonomy outside of the classroom. A learning that is as important as that which takes place indoors. The role of the teacher is far more than a provider of knowledge. Relationships are the heart of our work. The playground offers us a space to interact with our students, to observe them in a different light, learn about their interests, strengths and vulnerabilities- an understanding that is essential for building our professional knowledge and informing practice. 

Teachers on the playground have a role that goes beyond keeping children physically safe and opening yoghurt. It is here they can offer support to students as they negotiate new or challenging social and physical situations. The playground offers young people a place for autonomy and socialisation. It is here they practice important skills that contribute to their social competence, such as sharing, managing conflict, making friends and learning new skills. Teachers participate in this learning by ensuring students have appropriate equipment to play, such as balls, hoops and skipping ropes. They can make suggestions about how to communicate more effectively, self-regulate, take risks or de-escalate conflicts. 

In American schools, playground duty is provided by non-teaching staff, often a parent is paid to fulfil this role. In my experience this resulted in confusion as school rules were implemented inconsistently and according to the assumptions of the adult standing on the yard. I recall one officious parent banning children from trading pokemon cards for no apparent reason other than she did not like the game. Students had no idea when they could run, what they could play or often why they were in trouble. What happened on the playground often stayed on the playground and teachers remained unaware of the social dynamics and the impact they had on the children in the classroom.

Playing is learning 

The wording in the action plan denies the important role of teachers in supporting this learning. The playground is a valuable resource for students and teachers as it is the primary place for playing. Play, in its many variations in primary and secondary years, offers much more than a place for children to “let off steam”. Vital social and emotional learning happens when children play and interact on the playground, they develop their awareness of themselves, of others and their capacity for acting with responsibility and kindness. Teachers can model this for children, to facilitate play in the early years, and in the primary and secondary years, encourage social inclusion and give emotional support when needed; this can be as simple as putting on a band-aid to address complex matters such as bullying. The playground is the heart of the school community and a place for students and teachers to play and come together for the wellbeing of all. 

Our duty when schools reopen 

Studies show that student wellbeing should be the highest priority for schools when they re-open. For many students, learning from home has been a period marked by significant anxiety and social isolation. Reports show what our students missed most about school was playing with their friends and their teachers. Removing teachers from the playground takes away their opportunity to reconnect with their students, to be present with them as they return to school, to share their concerns and more importantly experience the joy of being together again. Surely this should be considered as “a high valued task”.

Olivia Karaolis teaches across the School of Education and Social Work at Sydney University. She completed her research at USYD after working in the United States in the field of Early Childhood Education and Special Education. Her focus has been on creating inclusive communities through the framework of the creative arts.

Main image: CC BY-SA 2.5, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6427507

Learning is not a race but politicians think it is. Now wellbeing is in peril.

Pasi Salhberg is right, we need to prioritise wellbeing during the endless lockdowns many of us are enduring. But this message is only partially right, because wellbeing isn’t just what’s important ‘right now’, it should always be the most important thing in learning. Unfortunately, our schooling systems have never understood this. In fact, mass schooling systems have their roots in nation-building imperatives that had, and continue to have, little to do with individual flourishing.

You only have to listen to politicians crooning about NAPLAN results improving during lockdown to know what’s important to our leaders. There is a relentless focus on student achievement rather than wellbeing. Luckily though, not all educators think this way, probably not even many of them. Yet, we all seem to be caught in the groupthink of policy by the numbers in education, while anchored to industrial-era thinking about the role of education while lip service is paid to the young human beings effaced by the numbers.

Wellbeing has always been a lesser priority for policy-makers, rather than the core focus. They seem to love to talk like it’s important, but when it comes down to it, academic success, measured by numbers, is always first. Even the latest Framework for Improving Student Outcomes (FISO), from the Department of Education and Training Education Victoria, bundles “whole school approach to health, wellbeing, inclusion and engagement” down the bottom of their list of eight pre-conditions for school improvement. It is quite literally at the end of the list, and oddly, what looks like wellbeing seems to be more about building the capacity of children to cope with the system rather than policy attempts at transforming it. 

What’s really odd is that for things that should be a race, like vaccination rates, politicians are inclined to think they’re not, and for things that shouldn’t be a race, like learning, they are only ever conceived as precisely that. No one is allowed to fall off the pace, lest, heaven forbid, the NAPLAN numbers turn sour, or the ‘Olympics’ of PISA ratings have us slipping down the medal tally. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, in the last 40 years especially, we’ve turned our schooling system into an individualist zero-sum game of mass-produced insecurity. 

Politicians seem to be more interested in getting our kids vaccinated just to get them back in class, to get them back to their ATARs, and the schools back to their competition for academic achievement and climbing league tables. Yet, COVID-19 is a disaster that doesn’t seem to want to go away. Teachers have been reporting ‘shattering’ work pressure, and things aren’t letting up with so many still under lockdown. Mental health issues amongst our young has doubled during the pandemic. And, as has been pointed out, “children and young people can be particularly vulnerable to the emotional impact  of disasters and they look to the adults around them for reassurance and protection”. This isn’t going to be easy, when there are many adults who are barely coping themselves and seeking help in record numbers. 

Educators are well aware of the wellbeing issues that are on the rise. But they are caught between parent anxiety, the need for someone to keep the kids occupied while parents struggle with working from home, and the structures of schooling and assessment that are unrelenting in its focus. There are a number of ‘elephants in the room’, but parents’ longer term anxiety about their children’s futures can be eased by a fundamental restructuring of education away from the hyper-competition it has become. As some are already suggesting, it’s time to abandon the ATAR factory and start thinking about alternatives. We should have been doing this all along, but the ATAR ‘perfect score’ has long dominated the media imagination. If we can head off these obsessions, just maybe, wellbeing could then be front and centre ahead of other curriculum priorities rather than an afterthought. If we get wellbeing right, we just might find ourselves on the path to the optimal environment for learning rather than the hypercompetitive one that we have.

Dr George Variyan is a lecturer in Master of Educational Leadership in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His background includes teaching, learning and leading in schools in Australia and overseas. George’s engagement in research is based on a critically orientated sociology, which explores human agency in the relationship between education and society. Key interests include educational sociology, gender, social justice, and ethics.