NAPLAN fails students

As recently reported in the Herald Sun article, ‘Victoria failing in NAPLAN test turnout’, there has been a dramatic drop in NAPLAN testing participation rates in the state over the past three years. Furthermore, the situation has prompted claims that absentees have been students with records of poor academic performance.

It seems, unfortunately, NAPLAN testing has been politicised to the point that schools are manipulating results to protect their own interests. While struggling students are tucked away at test time, their better performing peers are out achieving the results schools are proud to promote.

This practise flies in the face of everything NAPLAN testing originally set out to achieve. And, of course, it’s the children who suffer most.

While schools insist on presenting false facades, poorly performing pupils will continue to languish. Why? Because funding will not be granted to schools that, on the surface, don’t require it. The consequence –  those kids who need additional resources are neglected.

It’s an alarming state of affairs, not only for students currently in the system, but for those entering it, too. Parents seeking out the best institutions available to their children rely on NAPLAN scores for guidance. How can judgements be made with confidence, knowing results are skewed?

My advice for parents here is simple: NAPLAN testing is a single measure of progress and should not be used in isolation. Consider it in conjunction with a range of formal and informal measures. (For further tips on such measures to consider, check out the Edworks article, ‘Choosing the right school for your child’.)

Undoubtedly, the current NAPLAN testing arrangement needs rethinking; the potential for manipulation compromises the whole system. While it’s certainly not all schools that are at fault, unfortunately, a few bad apples spoil the bunch.


Exercise unlocks academic improvement

‘Healthy body, healthy mind.’ We’ve all heard the old cliché, but just how true is it? A recent study has identified some compelling evidence in its favour. As reported in The Age article, ‘Exercise linked to higher test scores’, a strong relationship has been found between primary school students who exercise regularly, and improved academic performance.

The study, conducted by Professor Richard Telford of the Australian National University’s medical school, has found that those schools with the top NAPLAN scores also boast the highest level of physical activity amongst students.

Furthermore, a second Telford study has found students taught physical education by specialist PE teachers scored higher NAPLAN results than those supervised by generalist classroom teachers.

These studies have been supported by a decade of neurological research in Germany and the US, which has found exercise, especially fitness activities that involve hand-eye co-ordination, can improve brain function.

Professor Telford claims his findings are “strong evidence for policymakers that specialist physical education in schools is not just important from the perspective of preventative medicine, but it is also associated with improving the academic development of children.”

As a psychologist and educator, I have long advocated the importance of children partaking in regular physical activity, not only within school hours, but also at home.

Parents should aim to establish healthy habits with their children from an early age. These need not be competitive, but inclusive. Some suggestions include:

  • bush walking
  • surfing
  • swimming
  • rowing
  • tennis (doubles)
  • jogging

Such activities are fantastic for fitness, and will allow your children to enjoy the far-reaching benefits exercise provides. What’s more, they offer an opportunity for you to get out and have fun as a family!

Homework — pointless PR for primary school students?

Cue the chorus of “I told you so” from students across the country. The perceived ineffectiveness of homework for primary school-aged children was reported recently in The Age article, ‘Homework in primary schools an exercise in futility, say academics’.

While expert opinion varied somewhat, the overwhelming attitude of those consulted was that homework is of little academic benefit to young students.

Dr Cooper, Professor of Education at Duke University, North Carolina, said, “Homework works but how effective it will be depends on the developmental level and home circumstances of the student. It shouldn’t be given in such large amounts that the child loses their motivation and begins to wonder whether they’re truly interested in the activity: that’s when homework turns from being good to bad.”

Experts closer to home were even more critical. John Hattie, the director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, suggested homework as it is usually undertaken has little to no effect in primary schools.

Richard Walker, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, said, “If the question is does homework improve learning and achievement as assessed by tests, then the answer, at primary level, is no. There is very little evidence to support it. At junior high school there’s a little bit of evidence to support it but it’s pretty weak and at senior high school level there’s more support.”

When you couple the apparent futility of the process with the time and efforts demanded of parents to follow through with it, the argument against homework mounts. Parents often find that they are the ones left holding the baby, in that they have to introduce and supervise tasks that are often beyond their child’s ability. This can see families up till all hours having to deal with unnecessary stress and tension.

Recently, when a parent of a grade 1 student questioned the excessive workload given by a private school, she was told, “That’s how it has always been done here.” Schools need to embrace research and consider the educational outcomes, rather than look at satisfying the expectations of a few parents. Additionally, if it is as ineffective as many are suggesting, a teacher’s time is surely better spent on more critical classroom matters.

As a psychologist and educator of more than 30 years, I established a no homework policy at Edworks. The research has proven us correct.

Rather than dictate, we encourage children to decide if and when they want to complete tasks at home. This promotes independent learning and ownership of the skills being developed. A review of the hundreds of testimonials from parents and students at our centres points to just how effective this strategy has been.

Essentially, we recognise the importance of monitoring the progress of students; not only on a week-to-week, month-to-month and year-to-year basis, but throughout the course of a single session, too. This way, we can ensure students remain on track and employ all of the necessary processes and skills required to produce the highest standard of work they are capable of. Parents find that half an hour spent at Edworks is more valuable for students than multiple hours working at home.

Finally, for those parents who are steadfast in their support of homework, Edworks has found that it is, most commonly, used more as a PR tool than anything else. As Professor Walker suggests, “In a lot of schools, the executive, the principal and deputy will emphasise homework because they know it’s good public relations: they know that parents are concerned about it. But a lot of teachers think it is a bit of a waste of time.”

Answers needed for gifted students

A recent parliamentary inquiry into the teaching of gifted students has found that Victoria’s state school system is failing to properly identify and teach its most talented students.

The article, ‘State fails gifted pupils’, discusses the inquiry’s findings and reveals that the three groups of gifted children that most often go unrecognised are:

  • those from disadvantaged or minority groups
  • those who conceal their abilities for ‘peer acceptance’
  • those who have become ‘disengaged with learning’.

These findings have also reignited debate over the value of separating talented students via academically selective schools, such as Melbourne High and Mac.Rob, and accelerated programs within schools.

From my 20 years’ experience running Edworks, I can certainly identify with the argument that schools are not properly recognising and teaching gifted students. Too often I see talented kids falling behind because they’ve become disengaged with the curriculum. Often, as has been suggested, it’s due to the fact that they downplay their talents in order to avoid the attention of peers. Ultimately, however, schools need to be held accountable for this.

It’s an unfortunate reality that our schools rarely give due recognition to the academic achievements of students. In contrast, kids who perform well in the sporting arena are commended at assemblies, have their trophies on proud display, and in turn, earn the admiration of their peers. This seems symptomatic of Australian society in general, in that we fail to acknowledge the accomplishments of scientists and the like, while inconsequential news on sportspeople makes the front page. Schools need to take responsibility for how the academic achievements of their students are promoted and perceived.

Not as black and white, however, is the issue of separating gifted students via academically selective schools and programs. Certainly, talented students gain great benefit from being surrounded by children of similarly high academic ability. (This is assuming there is not excessive pressure from schools, which isn’t always the case.) Though on the other hand, when gifted students join such schools/programs, those left behind lose positive role models. This in itself can impact negatively on a learning environment, and subsequently, the education of students within it.

Ironically, it seems education is key when it comes to how schools manage gifted students — education not of pupils, but teachers. Teachers must be better trained to identify and educate academically advanced children. This would go a long way to ensuring they remain engaged and stimulated in the classroom. Additionally, if we can change how students perceive academic achievement, identifying gifted students will be made far easier for teachers.

Right attitude equals improved performance

When I started Edworks more than 20 years ago, I did so in the knowledge that fostering the right attitude in our students would be vital to their successes — not only academically, but in the wider world, too. As a psychologist and prep teacher with a decade’s experience, I saw the value in establishing a positive, resilient and pro-active mindset in children from an early age. This ethos became the foundation of Edworks.

It was no surprise, then, to see the same philosophy advocated in The Age article, ‘Good behaviour fine for a spell’. It discusses research by Michael Bernard from the University of Melbourne, which found integrating positive attitudes and behaviour for learning into literacy lessons results in significant improvements.

Bernard explains that while it is a common misperception that academic learning, and social and emotional learning are separate entities, they are in fact strongly linked and should be taught in tandem. The latter, despite what some believe, are not innate — like literacy skills, they are learned.

As our students will attest, Edworks places as much emphasis on teaching students how to learn as we do on what they learn. For us, there is nothing more important than instilling confidence in a child, teaching them to persevere and fostering their ability to work as a team. It is only when these social and emotional skills are learned, and in turn the right attitude is adopted, that a child’s academic potential can be realised.

Success breeds success

The Age article, Repeating grades ‘fails’ students, discusses the results of recent studies conducted by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). Two of the main conclusions drawn were:

  • kids who are made to repeat grades perform poorly again the second time around
  • students who switch schools because of poor academic performance do worse in their new environment.

While the news article concentrates on the first finding, I’d like to focus on the second.

The OECD suggests that when poorly performing students change schools, the new ones they attend often host a larger portion of kids of similar academic ability.  As such, they are less likely to benefit from the influence of higher-achieving peers and positive role models.

This points to the fact that a positive learning environment, in which all children are striving for success, produces improved results. Herein lies one of the major benefits of Edworks.

The Edworks’ environment is a key factor in the substantial improvements we see in our students’ results. These benefits were also identified in Assoc. Prof. Munro’s findings in 2006 when he undertook a national study for the Federal Government Literacy Intervention (see below).

In line with Edworks’ practices, he advocates that while each child’s program should be individualised, the social context in which it is offered needs to allow for support and encouragement not only from teachers, but from fellow students as well.

In such scenarios, students find role models in other students — they are inspired by the successes of others. With many striving for the same goals, children not only get the best out of themselves, but out of each other. In this environment, as at Edworks, success breeds success.







Education policies — what are we thinking?

Those who read this article, published in The Age recently, could be excused for feeling disenchanted with our country’s policy makers. Evidently, copying the failed systems of the US and UK has seen the gap between our best and worst performing students widen.

Meanwhile, Finland, with a lower percentage increase in expenditure over the past 10 years, has its students performing to a far higher standard overall. Unsurprisingly, they also boast a more consistent spread of high performing schools and better qualified teachers.

The question then must be asked — if we are copying countries’ policies, why are we not aiming to emulate those with proven records of success? Have a look at the world education rankings from the OECD (below) and consider where Australia is placed in relation to Finland, the US and the UK. Surely we have to look beyond our old political and economic allies if we are to ‘move forward’.

Moreover, some may ask why we are copying other countries’ policies at all. It seems while the government is happy to hold schools accountable via NAPLAN testing, it assumes no real accountability for the status of our education system itself. Should we not be critiquing our current policies and innovating better systems?

As a parent who is directly involved in the issue, what are your thoughts? What do you see as the path to improvement?


Responsibility. Recognition. Rewards.

You may have seen the article, ‘Rough play is good for children’ in the Herald Sun recently. In summary, it suggests over-protective teachers are robbing children of opportunities to develop important life skills.

The fact is, teachers are placed under growing pressure from parents to ‘bubble-wrap’ kids. The result? Kids’ life experiences are greatly diminished.

As a psychologist, I believe we can foster success in children by encouraging them to take risks and accept the consequences of their actions, both positive and negative. Schools, therefore, must afford students the opportunity to take measured risks in the playground.

It’s all about giving children control, and putting them behind the ‘steering wheel’ of life. Just as kids need to experience the rewards of hard work, they need to experience how to cope with failure, criticism and rejection. It is through such experiences that they will develop and grow into mature, independent adults with a complete repertoire of life skills and experiences to draw upon.

As a parent, consider whether you provide your child with an environment in which they are encouraged to take risks.When was the last time you:

  • Made an excuse for your child not completing a project or homework?
  • Made an excuse for your child being late or away from school?
  • Intervened in a problem that s/he should have solved?
  • Let your child justify his/her actions to a friend, an adult or a teacher?
  • Encouraged your child to partake in something where success was not guaranteed?

The next time you feel the urge to jump in and take control, think of the long-term benefits that life experiences will provide.

Positive education

Recently it has been reported that prestigious private school, Geelong Grammar, has added a new subject to its curriculum – ‘positive education’. This is a variation of the philosophy of positive psychology, founded by American psychologist, Dr Martin Seligman.

These classes, implemented across a number of year levels, focus on highlighting the strengths of students. Examples include:

  • Year 6 students writing nice things about each other
  • Year 9 students writing gratitude letters
  • Year 11 students identifying each other’s character strengths during prefect training

While the papers may have portrayed positive education as cutting edge, it is something that, as a psychologist, I have been advocating through Edworks since its inception … more than 21 years ago!

I could see the life-changing impact that comes from encouraging children to believe in themselves. As such, Edworks places an enormous emphasis on encouraging children to recognise and celebrate their own successes. This is very much in line with Dr Martin Seligman’s focus on the positive.

Furthermore, we encourage parents to offer their children plenty of positive affirmations. These three easy tips form an ideal starting point:

  1. BE POSITIVE! Focus on your child’s successes, rather than their failures.
  2. NO BUTS! Next time your child shows you a piece of schoolwork and asks for an opinion, try to avoid the “but” – that is, “This is great, but…”
  3. IT TAKES THREE! Try to say three positive things to your child per day. It’s surprising how long many parents will go without offering a positive affirmation.

The great thing about the three steps is that they cost you nothing more than a bit of kindness!

Note: If you haven’t spotted them already, look out for the posters in reception featuring 101 Positive Statements you can relay to your child.



Choosing the right school for your child

With the second term fast drawing to a close, many parents will have started giving serious thought to where their child will be attending school next year. Whether your son/daughter is starting prep, making the transition from primary to secondary school or simply switching institutions, there’s a host of factors likely to influence your decision. We’ve provided a shortlist of questions you will need to consider.

  • Is the school close enough to your home and/or work?
  • Does the school have programs in place to cater for your child’s needs and interests?
  • What facilities does the school have?
  • Are you comfortable with the feel of the school?
  • Is the staff supportive and welcoming?
  • What is the school’s stance on homework and discipline?
  • What other services (e.g. after-school care) does the school offer?
  • If your child has any special needs, can the school cater for them?
  • What are the annual fees? Are there any other costs to be paid over the course of the year?

Remember: It’s important you choose a school that complements your son/daughter. You don’t want your child feeling as though he/she is required to change considerably in order to ‘fit in’.

For a more comprehensive list of tips on choosing schools, see the Australian Scholarships Group’s article: Tip Sheet – How To Choose A School With Confidence.

Note: Keep a look out for Edworks’ new book, ‘The ICing on the Cake’. Written by Psychologist and Edworks Founder, Greg Nicholson, this must-read publication offers vital tips on preparing your child for school.  Available at soon!