Teachers For a Fair Go: Exemplary Teachers in Low SES Schools

From Associate Professor Geoff Munns

Drawing on the highly successful Teachers for a Fair Go collaborative research project, Geoff Munns discusses the types of high interest, high challenge practices that teachers can plan for to really engage their students. We at this university are convinced that such personalised approaches to learning are fundamental to the practices of successful 21st century schools.

Few would argue that teachers can make a difference for students. For those students in low SES communities, having a great teacher can be even more critical for success at school in social and academic outcomes. Teachers For a Fair Go (Fair Go Project) is a UWS School of Education research project that is co-researching with 30 “exemplary teachers of students in poverty” the personal and professional qualities that can improve the educational and life circumstances of their students and so positively contribute to their community’s well-being.

The project is funded by an ARC Linkages grant with NSW DET’s Priority Schools Programs as the industry partner. Teachers in the project come from a wide variety of Australian schools from urban and rural contexts and across all stages of schooling (pre-school to Year 12): Lakemba, Macquarie Fields, Mt Druitt, Granville, Airds, Belmore, Fairfield, Canley Vale, Cambridge Park, Blairmount, Busby, Fairfield West, Lansvale, Coffs Harbour, Mungindi, Coonamble, Bogabilla, Brewarrina, Portland, Taree, Bombala. Four of the teachers are Indigenous.

Let me introduce you to two of these teachers. Dan and Chantal teach in urban schools located in low SES communities. Dan is a new career teacher, in his third year of teaching. By contrast, Chantal is a teaching Principal who has taught for 20 years. There are marked differences in their approaches to teaching, but much in common at the heart of what engages their students.

Dan (Year 6)
Dan teaches in a large inner suburban primary school (800 students) in Sydney, Australia. The student cohort represents over 40 cultural-linguistic groups, with the majority being Muslim and Arabic-speaking Australians. Almost 100 % of the students come from multilingual backgrounds (Language Backgrounds Other Than English). The school is a very supportive learning community, with a stated purpose “to strive for excellence and equity”. Importantly for a teacher like Dan, the school’s leadership encourages him to take risks and be innovative in his pedagogy, within a context of strong support, professional dialogue and high expectations.
Dan’s classroom is characterised by active, constructivist and negotiated learning. All students, regardless of academic level are constantly involved with big ideas, important themes and high intellectual quality.

Students perceive learning as fun due to Dan’s capacity to initiate activities using surprise, unexpected props or actions. Learning experiences are authentic and regularly extended outside the classroom and connected with the local community. He sustains a sense of excitement in learning by involving students in problem-solving and guiding them with questions that develop ownership, respect and autonomy. Dan’s pedagogy has changed students’ attitudes. They now realise that they can be accountable for learning. Individual contribution, effort and risk-taking are valued. Planning, process and engaging messages are features of Dan’s teaching. Quality teaching is the focus over behaviour.

Analysis of Dan’s pedagogy after classroom observations revealed the following features that the research believes work towards high levels of student engagement:
• There is a high rotation of challenging, rich tasks. The pedagogy features hard work for both the students and their teacher. There are no back-outs or compromises and the pedagogy needs perseverance for all involved.
• Students are critical learners, continually being asked to think and solve authentic, hands-on challenges for themselves with the teacher as co-learner.
• The classroom is a multi-modal environment: students are skilled users of technology and expected to be able to use it autonomously.
• Students make decisions. Dan sees them “as guardians of knowledge”. All learners are included in the design of the task.
• Minor discipline issues are handled dispassionately and explicitly. Discipline issues are regarded as “works in progress … these kids are a great project”.
• Strong teaching and learning attention are provided for lower level students. In other situations, such students might have received a nagging, behaviour focus rather than a teacher who shares their thinking, assists them as a co-learner and expects success with differentiated tasks and assessment.
• Very few students get punished during any day and no-one influences the planned pedagogy. Dan believes he can “control” the students but chooses rather to share the pedagogical spaces.
• The pedagogy works towards high ideals of learning and this is maintained without worrying about what others might think. Dan is true to his own pedagogical beliefs and tries not to falter in these.

Intensive and sustained classroom observations in this classroom revealed that a potentially challenging group of students showed strong involvement with and acceptance of their learning experiences. As the students put it:

We do learning and it’s fun at the same time … exciting … experiments and projects … Fun, exciting…the teacher helps us with the hard work. In other classes we just wrote stuff from the board and learnt nothing … In this class you can imagine.

Chantal (Teaching Principal)
Chantal is Principal of a small primary school (180 students) in an inner suburban community in Sydney. Not dissimilar to Dan’s school, it has a large population of students living in multilingual families (80%), and Arabic is the largest language group. When Chantal was appointed to the school as Principal (2006) it had fewer students and she was both a teacher and a Principal. This was a deliberate choice, as she wanted to be both a teacher and a leader. The school has since grown to the point where she no longer needs to teach, but maintains active teaching roles in the school. As a teaching Principal Chantal continued her recognition of the importance of high expectations and the need to increase student participation in learning rather than accepting student passivity.

For our research we observed Chantal teaching a number of different primary-aged groups (approximately 9 to 12 year old students). As mentioned above, Chantal has a different approach to teaching than Dan. She has an explicit approach and is more strongly foregrounded in classrooms, while still allowing students’ choices in the design of activities. Her teaching encourages students to be active and reflective in their learning. Continual reflections refocus tasks, processes and learning quality. Cooperative learning is frequently employed to cater for the needs and abilities of multi-staged, academically mixed and culturally diverse groups of students. Students perceive learning as fun and exciting due to Chantal’s capacity for humour and her ability to focus on conversations about learning, higher order thinking and challenging work. Learning experiences are invariably authentic and problem-based, promoting responsibility and shared decision making about the school. Empathy, respect and ownership are encouraged.

As with Dan, Chantal values quality pedagogy over behaviour, though does keep a tighter “Principal’s rein” over her students. Chantal’s commitment is obvious and infectious. “My whole belief, my philosophy, my passion is out there – it’s on my sleeve.”

Following is an analysis of the key elements of Chantal’s engaging pedagogies:

• There is an overarching focus on meta-cognition and the use of technical language.
• All classroom work is challenging with continual reflections about learning refocusing the task, processes and learning.
• Risk-taking and self-regulation are encouraged throughout. Feedback targets risk-taking and autonomy. There are frequent opportunities for students to be decision-makers.
• A consistent use of narrative links learning activities and builds relationships.
• Discourse is consistently conversational, often personalised and related to Chantal’s and the students’ worlds.
• Students remain very industrious and receptive for the most part of each lesson – there are strong signs of engagement throughout all lessons. Students are expected to “get into it” and do so.
• Lessons move on and students are expected students to be “on the game” – to remain focused and follow the learning processes.
• There is a calm but firm focus characterised by humour and positivity, but always on learning. Distracted students are quickly brought back to task without emotion. Students not on task are not appreciated and they know it. This brings an unhurried, learning focused environment with time to think.

The Teachers For a Fair Go Project realizes there are many different ways towards student engagement, and these are invariably linked with contextual issues, student responses and teacher-preferred style. So while Chantal’s classrooms look, feel and sound different to Dan’s, her pedagogy resonates strongly with the FGP student engagement framework. There are high cognitive, high affective and high operative learning experiences for all learners and her students are actively involved in reflective and supportive learning communities. As with Dan, her students understand and appreciate what she is doing for them:

She helps us imagine, use stories, ask questions, mix up words, read between the lines to get meaning … When explaining and we work, she asks us to wait, absorb, wait so that we understand … She makes us feel confident and happy by walking around, smiling when we are doing something hard … She is always positive … She talks about learning a lot, tells us some of her tricks, tells funny stories, uses humour … She gives reasons for changing behaviour, uses a polite, calm voice, then they understand … She talks about learning and being a safe, respectful learner.

These two snapshots of classrooms are offered as exemplars for engaging teaching within the framing of the Fair Go Project (Fair Go Team, 2006; Munns, 2007). Of course this is not to suggest that these are the only pedagogical ways that students can become engaged. However, they do offer a picture of classrooms where there is a strong suggestion that the teachers’ approaches to learning have encouraged student engagement.

References: Fair Go Team (2006) School Is For Me: Pathways to Student Engagement. Sydney, Priority Schools Funding Program, NSW Department of Education and Training.    Munns, G. (2007). “A sense of wonder: Student engagement in low SES school communities”. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 11: 301-15.

[Note this has post been taken from a longer article Munns, G. (2010, in press) Thinking the unthinkable: Teachers who engage students in poverty, in Portelli, J. & McMahon, B. (Eds), Student Engagement in Urban Schools: Beyond Neoliberal Discourses. North Carolina: Information Age Publishers.]

Geoff Munns is a research leader in the Teachers for a Fair Go project at the University of Western Sydney Australia. He is highly experienced in, and committed to, devepoping pedagogies that produce equitable outcomes for young people from indigenous and low socio-economic status backgrounds. He is also very affirming of the concept of teachers-as-researchers.

Does NSW still need a School Certificate in the 21st century?

from Professor Margaret Vickers

In this post, Margaret Vickers examines the changing context of secondary education in NSW and the potential for the recently announced review of the NSW School Certificate to modernise the secondary school accreditation.

The basic architecture of the NSW system of secondary education was established almost fifty years ago, and some of its key features are still with us today. One of these features is the Year 10 School Certificate. Under the Wyndham plan, NSW established a four-year program of comprehensive education leading to the School Certificate, followed by a two-year academic program designed to prepare a talented minority for the Higher School Certificate and University admission. Despite the huge economic and social changes of the past five decades, NSW still divides secondary education into two phases and concludes the junior phase at Year 10 with state-wide formal assessments. In contrast, between 1968 and 1985, every other state in Australia abolished the Year 10 certificates.

The reasons behind this nation-wide shift away from Year 10 qualifications reflect major shifts that can no longer be ignored, and it is possible that NSW will soon find itself moving into closer alignment with the other states. In May this year a Review of the School Certificate was announced by the NSW Board of Studies, and its terms of reference open up all sorts of possibilities. In every state and territory across Australia, the school leaving age has already been raised. National targets have also been set, proposing that 90 percent of all young people should complete Year 12, or an equivalent qualification such as an apprenticeship. From 2010, young people in NSW will also be required to remain in school or in some form of structured training until they are 17 years old.

This creates a contradiction. Since the average age of a NSW student at the end of Year 10 is 15 years and 9 months, most students will now be staying on long after they have completed the School Certificate. However, a considerable number of these young people may not complete Year 12. What will they do, between the end of year 10 and the day they leave? What will they gain in return for the additional months they are staying on? It seems that there may now be a need for an exit qualification that recognises what students have actually accomplished at the time they do leave school.

Several other factors have also contributed to the need for a new approach. First, with the NAPLAN in place at Year 9, there is less justification for a formal academic assessment at the end of Year 10. Second, young people are seeking greater flexibility in the timing of their studies, with some undertaking senior academic or vocational courses in Year 10. Thus, the boundary between the junior and senior phases is being blurred. Third, there is a growing trend towards the recognition of out-of-school achievements (in employment or community service) as part of a new certificate of school achievement. While there will be no change to the School Certificate in 2010, all sorts of possibilities are opening up for the years ahead. If you want to read more about this, or participate in the debate about the future, go to:  www.boardofstudies.nsw.edu.au/schoolcertificate/sc_review


Margaret Vickers is Professor of Education in the School of Education and Centre for Educational Research at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She specialises in secondary education policy and post-secondary education pathways.

The teacher as ‘leader-networker’

From Associate Professor Steve Wilson

In this post, Steve Wilson extends the argument in his initial post on this blog, ‘The evolution of the 21st century school’, by suggesting that we need a new metaphor for the 21st century teacher – the ‘leader-networker’. This piece is from a broader article currently under construction.


To understand the metaphor of ‘leader-networker’ for the 21st century teacher, we should briefly consider common metaphors for the 21st century school. Traditionally, the school has often been compared to a ‘factory’, or a ‘family’. More contemporary metaphors for the school have included a ‘community’ and a ‘learning community’. Within these respective metaphors, the teacher might be conceived as the ‘manager’, ‘parent’, ‘mayor’ and ‘facilitator’. Each of these metaphors does capture something of the traditional roles schools and teachers have undertaken and developed in 20th century society, but they do not provide an insight into the necessary evolving role of the school into the 21st century.

In my view an appropriate metaphor for the 21st century school is the school as a ‘network’. I like the metaphor of the ‘network’ because it captures the complexity and context of contemporary schooling. It neatly builds upon and extends the current metaphors we employ to describe the school. Effective schools are certainly ‘communities’, and the good ones are ‘learning communities’. However, in the 21st century it is the effective construction of ‘networks’ which forms the basis of these communities. Within classrooms, teachers develop networks of learners through team, cooperative learning and whole-class approaches. They create networks of student learning across classes. In effective schools, the teachers form networks between each other, sharing and cooperatively planning practices and experiences. Within the effective contemporary school, networks are the fundamental building blocks to community.

It is fair to say that in most contemporary schools, the extent of the networks they create end at the school gate – that is, the networks are contained within the school. That is the characteristic of the 20th century school – it is generally a self-contained system that, when operating effectively, has developed successful internal networks which focus on learning and which involve both teachers and their students. In some cases, schools have formed complex and effective learning networks in their broader community, with families, social agencies, other learning institutions, and employers. These schools are evolving the characteristics of the 21st century school.

A critical event occurred in the 1990s – the development of the internet – and has progressed with extraordinary pace since that time. It has expanded the notion of the ‘network’ to the point where the concept of ‘network’ has become a ubiquitous social reality. The impact of global digital information transfer and the internet, and their application to social and professional networking and commercial and retail activity, has been nothing short of astounding. In many respects, schools have been exempt from this impact, but this will not continue. Digital technologies and tools will vastly expand the ways in which schools network, and with whom. The 20th century notions of the self-contained classroom and the self-contained school will be eroded, and our teachers and school leaders will need to develop the skills of the ‘leader-networker’.

The question is not if these expanded and digitally-enabled networks will assume critical significance in the learning practices of schools, but how. Our young people, our students, are already highly networked outside of school and routinely access digital information to engage in real-life and ‘real-need’ learning. Our school-based educational leaders (and indeed, all those in wider hierarchies whose roles are to support the school) need to become consummate ’leader-networkers’ to ensure that digitally-enabled networks are used to enhance quality learning outcomes for children. Few of us are yet sure how these new networks can be utilised to meet the challenges of 21st century school education – it is the school-based ‘leader-networker’ who is best placed to develop these understandings.

I am therefore happy to argue that an appropriate metaphor for the 21st century school is a ‘network’, and the teacher and school leaders need to be viewed as a ‘leader-networkers’. For me, the metaphor of the ‘leader-networker’ captures the leadership role the teacher must maintain in classroom learning in a way that metaphors such as ‘negotiator’ seem unable to do. This metaphor also maintains the best elements of the ‘learning community’ metaphor, because genuinely accessible networks have many of the characteristics of effective learning communities. More importantly, I like the metaphor of the ‘network’ because it is an inclusive term which allows for complex relationships, of various types, to exist. As such, it includes our students as part of the network (indeed, conceiving of school-based learning networks without the participation of students becomes a nonsense). Attributing our students the quality of ‘learning networkers’, this metaphor encourages our students to help to drive the network and contribute to its collaborative work in knowledge construction within the 21st century school.

Steve Wilson is Head of the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.