When we talk about school improvement and student success we are talking about two of the most moving targets on the educational landscape.
Many policymakers focus on quantifiable data such as standardised tests to determine if schools are improving, and subsequently students are achieving success but such an approach can only provide part of the picture and hence part of the approach for continual improvement.
The term ‘sharp and narrow focus’ has resonated through the rooms and offices of educational organisations for a number of years now with the best intention of encouraging school principals, administration teams and classroom teachers to focus on one area of student learning at a time – usually for at least one academic year and until such time as improvement can be evidenced through standardised tests.
I have to admit that I challenged the term ‘sharp and narrow’ whilst a school principal and encouraged my staff to instead adopt the concept of ‘broad and focused’. My reasoning was that if I encouraged teachers to narrow their approach to concentrate on one area of the curriculum related to either literacy or numeracy, then not only was I complicit in possibly deskilling the teachers but moreover, I was depriving the students in my care of the multitude of other skills necessary for them to improve in literacy and numeracy or any other subject area.
Let me explain. If a school decides that their explicit improvement agenda is Reading, or perhaps Writing, then what other areas of teaching and learning need to be provided to students for them to be capable readers and writers? What about the all-important Oral Language? Without the skill of articulation we can’t really learn much at all. I believe that Oral Language should be upfront and foremost in all subjects. And what about the knowledge and skills required to be capable spellers, effective users of vocabulary, utilisers of correct grammar and punctuation, recognisers and users of various genres? In the absence of focused teaching and learning in all of these areas, I am unsure of how Reading or Writing success, or for that matter any area of literacy and numeracy, will improve. How will students become engaged in the process of Writing if they are not successful in any of the above? Tell me if I’m wrong, but children who don't want to write are generally those who don’t have these necessary skills resulting in frustration that results in ‘I cant do this (won’t do this), imagination gone – pen down‘!
Those who know me are aware that I’m not afraid to challenge the status quo if I don’t fully believe in the agenda and strategies (probably to my detriment at times) but I only challenge if I have the evidence to support my preferred approach to teaching and learning - and that I do! The results in my schools have been well above state and national standards in a significant number of areas for a number of years. More importantly, as many of our schools do, my staff went beyond what any data could tell them in setting students up for success and experiencing continual school improvement. As a team we strived to give our students the tools for academic and social success, not only during their formal schooling years but also for the rest of their lives. We strived to challenge their thinking and make them curious, creative and confident.
So perhaps it is time to move from ‘sharp and narrow,’ which has the potential to be quite limiting and have the effect of neglecting the many important aspects of a life long curriculum. Perhaps we could adopt the term ‘broad and focused’ ensuring all components that contribute to literate and numerate global citizens are given equal importance.