Amazing Things Young People Do


Who says that reading is under-rated? This 4 year-old has read 1,000 books. No kidding.


Pop quiz: What has 15 year-old Toby Thorpe from Huonville High, Hobart done?

a) Created a two-year renewable energy plan for his community.
b) Met the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev
c) Won $US100, 000.
d) Met Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed.

Both of these stories blow me away. Four year-old, Daliyah, and Toby have both achieved incredible things at such a young age. Their feats are of the kind that we look to in admiration, unsure of whether we could achieve what they’ve done.

The useful takeaways from their stories though, is not that we should feel inadequate for not having done similar things. That response feeds into unhelpful beliefs and attitudes, such as the sense that “I just wasn’t born to be able to do X”. We don’t need to look at success for the purposes of drawing comparison, but we can still celebrate the achievements of others and take joy in what they have done.

We can also learn from what these two stories tell us about supporting young people to pursue their passions. Daliyah’s parents entered her in a reading program where the bar was set extraordinarily high. Toby’s teachers supported his participation in a prestigious international competition. In both cases, the adults involved could have stopped and not provided the opportunity out of concern for Daliyah or Toby facing failure. It’s easy to think “What’s the point of my child/student doing this? The chances of them succeeding are incredibly slim”. But if opportunities are never provided in the first place, then there’s no way of knowing what potential height can be reached. Opportunity combined with passion form a powerful couple. As these two young people have shown us, passion is a great motivator that pushes us to exceed expectations.

Daliyah’s and Toby’s stories have left me wondering about how we can harness the passion/opportunity combo for more young people. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if one of the goals of our education system was to support every individual to uncover and pursue something that got them excited and deeply curious, without the pressure of having a defined end-point (e.g. curriculum outcome) or standardised metric for success (e.g. report mark)?





Reliability and perfection


reliability, n. the extent to which an experiment, test, or measuring procedure yields the same results on repeated trials.

perfection, n. the action or process of improving something until it is faultless.


“There’s a paradox here. Ask most research physicians how a profession can advance, and they will talk about the model of ‘evidence-based medicine’. …[I]n a 1978 ranking of medical specialities according to their use of hard evidence from randomised clinical trials, obstetrics came in last. Yet almost nothing else in medicine has saved lives on the scale that obstetrics has.”

– from The Score: How childbirth went industrial.


I have found myself in a state of slowly trying to procure the most perfect lesson. To fix things up so that it runs minute-by-minute according to a plan, in which I am asking just the right questions, have tasks that are carefully scaffolded at the precise level for each of my students, with every stage of the lesson considered and noted down. The problem with this is that the complexity of the details that I’ve built up in my mind across the 75 minutes of a lesson don’t play out as planned. This, of course, is because I’m dealing with actual people – and young, inquisitive, social teenagers at that.

Instead of needing perfectly tailored lessons they need reliability.


The Apgar Score is a measurement tool that is used in obstetrics. It is a very, very simple tool to administer, consisting of five questions worth two points each. As a result of having this standardised measure used for diagnostic purposes and for comparing the health of newborns, this tool has saved the lives of many babies and their mothers who would otherwise have been at risk of death. And part of the beauty of this tool is that it concentrates on the notion of overall reliability as opposed to the perfect measurement of many characteristics for each and every child.

For an individual doctor, it may seem more useful to work with a detailed tool that goes into the particulars of the baby they are delivering. But consider this one child in the context of all of the babies that are born and how the doctor can learn from the vast numbers of babies and apply that learning to the one individual baby.

If you can gather data on a general population, then as a consequence you will be able to have greater insight into what goes on within that population, including broader patterns or trends, in contrast to the perspective that would be gained by looking at a smaller case study in a greater amount of detail.


Given the simplicity of the Apgar score, it can be delivered by anyone, no matter the level of expertise and no matter the location. The same sort of thinking needs to be applied in schools.

In the complex environment of a school, we are consistently guilty of trying to find the most perfect way of measuring where a student is at or planning a lesson or analysing the performance and progress of a teacher year by year. Now, don’t get me wrong, all of this is important and I don’t deny the utility in understanding each of these insights. However, if we are to better consider the progress of a student and the progress of a number of students overall, then we need to be looking at them as a conglomerate. We need to be thinking, what is a more reliable way in which we can assess improvement and be able to do this in an efficient way?

Learning Mathematics: The struggle, the tools and the way forward

On Friday 4 July I presented the Pecha Kucha below at the 2014 TransformEd Conference, Melbourne.

Learning Mathematics: The struggle, the tools and the way forward from Michaela Epstein on Vimeo.

A sales pitch to the disinterested

My job is to sell a product that the client doesn’t want but has to have – so Dan Meyer has aptly described the job of a maths teacher.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some students who do love maths. They see the beauty of it and are curious about the language that underlies mathematics. They know that maths provides them with a break from the everyday and opens up a new world in which they can creatively explore.

For others, however, maths is a seemingly unattainable subject. The language of maths (and, quite often, the language of English) provides a brick wall that halts their ability to reason with any problems or puzzles they face. “I’m dumb at maths” becomes an easy catch cry and excuse for giving up. Many of these students have spent years not understanding this supposedly important subject and now, in high school, are one, two or sometimes five years behind.

These students’ behaviours unsurprisingly manifests in ways that show a disinterest in and lack of responsibility towards their learning.

At the passive end of the spectrum are students who ask for textbook exercises. Instead of being given open-ended or discursive problems to solve, they would rather follow procedural tasks that have a single answer to be ticked off by flipping to the end of the book. These students are simply satisfied with knowing they’re right and then moving on. The more interesting question of understanding ‘why’  is not of concern.

Somewhere behind these students are those who make an active choice to hand over responsibility for all aspects of their learning to their teacher. I mean all. These students, despite having had around a decade of education thus far, have over this period lost the ability to bring a book or pen to class. Education is of such little significance that these basic items are not perceived as an essential part of their day. Once the work gets started in class, these students will then often lack impetus or ability to get started, often needing help step-by-step to understand exactly what they need to think about and write down.

Finally, at the aggressive end of the spectrum, are those students who care so little about the learning of their peers and of themselves that they actively disrupt classes. These students take attention away from constructive discussions and productive stages of a lesson, shifting it onto their own behaviour. They display an unwillingness to concede that a classroom is made up of more than one individual and that those other individuals are there in the room trying to become smarter, not learn about their best friend’s Facebook status.

While these four personalities will exist in most classes, the difficulty multiplies when the balance of students shifts towards the disengaged end of the spectrum. In these classrooms, the teaching and learning becomes more about improving behavioural and attitudinal skills rather than specific mathematical concepts. To turn this around, takes not only much work from a teacher, but also from the school, support services and parents.


The Good #2: Limited funding as an enabler

The billion-dollar question of late in the education sphere, is “Will Gonski pass?” Tied into these three words are:

  • a detailed report on current and proposed funding arrangements on Australia’s school system;
  • state government versus federal government versus school sector deliberations on a myriad of potential funding models;
  • public awareness campaigns; and
  • a discourse that has injected new meanings into the term “Gonski”, such that the man and his report are far removed from where we now stand.

In the debate are issues around equity in student outcomes and the ability for each school to set their students up for success. In parts of the country and for some students of particular backgrounds, to achieve this desired state of ‘equity’ extra funding that will provide additional resources and staffing is required.

Now some schools have it tough. Gonski’s report suggested that in schools where different forms of disadvantage are combined, the levels of disadvantage are compounded. Thus the need for increased funding is even more apparent.

In my own school this is the case. Give me 5 minutes and I could come up with a lengthy list of how extra funding could be allocated. I would start with new desks, extra maths and science staff, updated IT equipment, paint jobs in classrooms, sufficient textbooks for every class, student sponsorship for camps and excursions… and then easily go on.

Intertwined into this discussion around the need for funding, however, is an illustration of public and poorer independent schools that is based on deficit language: what we lack, what we need, the state-of-the-art resources that wealthier (independent) schools have.

In part due to my own cynicism that extra funding will be coming any time soon and also as a means of rising above this deficit thinking, it is important to recognise the achievements that are being made by schools that steadily work within their limited capacities.

For example, by not having sufficient maths teachers, some staff at my school have had to teach across learning areas, finding themselves in front of classes that they would not have otherwise taught. While many of these teachers are subsequently placed in challenging and often stressful situations, they are also in a position of receiving additional professional development. Further, the increased scope of their work enables these teachers to gain a more holistic perspective of many of their students’ learning abilities.

Secondary schools are often criticised for focusing on teaching ‘subjects’ rather than ‘students’ – a criticism that primary schools do not receive – so maybe this practice of teaching multiple subject areas should be more deliberately embraced?

Another opportunity that has arisen due to the availability of limited funds, has presented itself in the form of atypical leadership roles for students. While not all students have the chance (or want) to be on the SRC or to attend leadership programs, often these are the primary forms of leadership development that students are exposed to. Leadership is frequently equated with wearing a badge, running fundraisers and standing up at assembly.

In situations where schools are unable to spend freely on extracurricular activities, however, opportunities then arise for students to take on roles where adults may otherwise have been employed. This was the case at a recent school dance, where one student DJ-ed and a few others were official photographers for the night. By maturely taking on their roles, these students proved themselves capable and in turn earned respect from peers.

While federal education reforms are a necessity, we mustn’t forget what schools are still able to achieve, even when cloaked by the more immediate challenge of mere survival.

5 good things

As a teacher, it can be very easy to focus on what’s going wrong around you: a class that didn’t go as planned, students who are being disruptive, students who are being bullied, staff politics, stress, short time-frames, long hours, etc. Indeed, it seems that this attitude is one that is mirrored more generally in the media’s attitude towards public schools.

An underlying tone suggests they can’t support or provide for students in the same way as wealthier private or their more academically-endowed selective counterparts (e.g.). Public schools are not quite good enough.

Thinking about it, when are public schools ever the ones held in higher esteem with the other sectors striving to be like them? Rather, a discourse around ‘deficit’ magnifies the under-funding, under-resourcing and under-staffing of public schools.

Is a rapidly weakening ‘Gonski’ model going to fix this? Unlikely.

Is the Australian education system ever going to achieve the same results as is seen in the highly regarded education systems of Finland and Singapore? Not unless significant structural or philosophical changes are made to our education system as a whole.

However, let’s not forget we do currently have a system that is working for most of our students and is in fact relatively strongly rated in an international setting. Australia’s high levels of secondary and tertiary educational attainment and scores that are amongst the top in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are a testament to this.

In recognition of these strengths, my next five posts will focus on different successes that are apparent either in my own school or public schools more generally. They will be a celebration of the innovation, collegiality and hard work from staff and students that often goes unacknowledged outside the school grounds.

A history lesson for Kevin Donnelly

Gillard’s record as education minister, under Kevin Rudd’s leadership, is one of failure, waste and mismanagement…

Under her control, billions have been wasted on the Building the Education Revolution program that forced off-the-shelf, centrally mandated infrastructure on schools with little, if any, educational benefit.

The much-heralded computers in schools program, notwithstanding the cost, has delivered thousands and thousands of now out-of-date computers that schools can ill-afford to maintain or update.

Kevin Donnelly,   The Australian, 2 April 2013

Term 1 is over. As I relax into my two week ‘holiday’ I am getting on top of those tasks that were pushed to the bottom of my to-do list during term: report-writing, marking, planning. The marking primarily consists of year 7 history assignments on Ancient Egypt. For this, students learnt to form inquiry questions, conduct research and develop their understanding of history through concepts such as evidence, change, continuity and significance.

The students are being marked in line with the new Australian Curriculum. It states that at Level 7 students are to be able to “Locate, compare, select and use information from a range of sources as evidence”. While some students are treading a fine line between plagiarising and quoting, others have shown themselves to be more adept at this skill already at this early stage in the year. As 2013 progresses, it is clear that as a class we will need to go through this distinction though and also delve into the question of why it is important to use evidence in backing up claims.

It is fortunate that the majority of my students did not follow Kevin Donnelly’s example from his recent article in The Australian, for they included a reference list.

In his article, Donnelly – who touts himself as “one of Australia [sic] leading education commentators” – is quick to criticise and lay blame on the Federal Government’s past mistakes in education. He is particularly scathing of Prime Minister Gillard.

This criticism could perhaps be accepted if sufficient evidence were provided. Instead, Donnelly’s use of words twists the article from insightful political commentary to a piece that is obscenely emotive and one-sided. In addition to the quote at the start of this post, and to further highlight this, phrases adopted by Donnelly include:

  • “an increasingly sceptical and disillusioned public is no longer listening”
  • “the fetish for limiting education to what can be measured… are stifling innovation and change” (my italics)
  • “The Gillard-inspired national curriculum… is awash with progressive fads.”

If this were a Year 7 history assignment, not only would I have to mark him down for lack of evidence, but Donnelly would also score poorly on “Draw[ing] conclusions about the usefulness of sources” (Level 7, Historical Skills). From where has he drawn his conclusions?

Indeed, Donnelly’s sloppiness and cherry-picking of ideas has been noted elsewhere by another educator.

It is a pity that prominent input into the current education debate in Australia occurs at this level. If education is to be a key focus of the upcoming federal election, we can only hope that contributions to this debate are more carefully formed, with the aim of furthering rather than watering-down meaningful discussion.

Thursday (week 7, term 1)

Q&A AUDIENCE MEMBER: At Melbourne City Mission, we are running classrooms for kids who are homeless. They’re turning up to class in the morning, not with a school bag but with a sleeping bag. These young people have real complex needs that mainstream schools aren’t catering for. This is the question: where are the flexible alternative education programs in this debate for they play a vital role in keeping our most vulnerable kids connected to education.

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, the kind of children that [the audience member] was talking about, these are very extreme cases. These are not children that are in mainstream schools. So there need to be specific programs that don’t just deal with their education needs but their homelessness, their family situation, what their future might be. They may well be drug-addicted and so on. So it’s not just so easy to say, well, this falls into the Gonski review or this is part of the education debate.

For the second day in a row, a different student of mine was suspended. Suspensions tend not to happy easily. They occur when a student is posing a risk to the safety of other students and staff or has exhibited a number of other complex behaviours. This was not the first suspension for this student this year. Indeed there is much going on in this young person’s life. From a young age the student has been involved in taking illicit substances. On various occasions other people, including myself, have been threatened by this student.

Yet the student has no diagnosed mental or behavioural disorders, and has a home to go to every night. In fact, the student is doing well in a number of school subjects, which is a contrast to the typical profile of “hard-to-manage” students, who tend to be many years behind where they should be in their learning.

Admittedly, my ‘mainstream’ school could be doing more for this student on top of what is already being done. We should be checking in with this student every day. There should be a stricter behaviour plan in place. Etc. (I’m not precisely sure what else must be done; I’m not exactly an expert in dealing with these issues). Since we can only be satisfied by working within our means, however, this student has continued throughout the term to disrupt their peers’ as well as their own learning. For as long as this student continues to display such volatile behaviours, their own learning and capacity for improvement will be haphazard and stifled.

In my short experience as a teacher, students such as these are not an anomaly in ‘mainstream’ schools. They may only represent 1-5% of students, but they are still a real and concerning presence. If this is not part of the current education debate, it is unclear to me in what way any education reform can truly produce the sort of change that we aspire to.

Wednesday (week 7, term 1)

CHRISTOPHER PYNE: Well, while you’re going through your litany of cuts you should add that the Federal Government cut $3.9 billion in education last year… They have cut the laptops in schools program completely… And they’ve cut the trade training centres completely so…

Indeed, more stories came in about self-mutilation on Wednesday.

Q&A AUDIENCE MEMBER: Can you answer my question about your funding, please? My question about your funding.

Last year our school began a Year 7 mentoring program, to assist disengaged students or those at risk of becoming disengaged. The program ran successfully, with staff members spending upwards of 20 minutes a week with a nominated student. This year I have put my hand up to help out and on Wednesday attended an information session on it. Out of our 50 or so staff, four turned up.

It’s not that no one cares or doesn’t want to become involved. I spoke to a number of colleagues afterwards who responded positively to the program, noting how important it has been for those students who took part last year. Maybe under different circumstances they would put their hand up. Some said that if they were really needed they would consider becoming involved.

The limiting factor for the majority of our staff is time, a precious commodity particularly in the current Victorian political climate. For months now, Victorian Australian Education Union (AEU) members have participated in various actions designed to sway the state government in their stance on pay and other conditions. One of the more prominent actions has been the implementation of a strict 38-hour working week policy. Teachers participating in this, will teach all their classes, talk to parents, attend meetings, do planning and so forth, so long as it is within the 38 hours for which they are being paid. For many, this has meant a drastic shift in school commitments: camps, productions, extra-curricular activities have all been cancelled.

For our disengaged year 7 students, the time limitations mean that teachers are unable to take on the extra commitment of working one-on-one on a regular basis as the mentoring program necessitates. It’s unclear at this stage whether all the students nominated for the program, will have the opportunity to take part.

While I question the utility of the AEU in promoting such a stance, I respect teachers’ adherence to collective action. It is a pity that the failure of negotiations between the AEU and state government are having such broad-reaching effects.

Tuesday (week 7, term 1)

Q&A AUDIENCE MEMBER: Mr Pyne, the O’Farrell Government cut $1.7 billion from education and 1800 jobs, the Newman Government $0.9 billion and 14,000 public sector jobs and Ted Bailleu slashed $555 million from education before he himself was slashed. Why should we not expect similar education cuts from a Liberal Federal Government?

Slashing. Cutting. Scars.

Sorry, I’ve moved on from the discussion of where the next billion dollars worth of school investment is going to go – as much as it does concern me.

The more immediate concern on Tuesday was physical. At our school, there is a trend among students to use blades or other sharp objects to self-inflict wounds. At some point in the day, a student ran up to tell me that this was taking place and that a student was bleeding.

Young people cutting themselves is by no means a new phenomena. So as worrying as this is, I was not completely surprised to hear about it. What is new, is that it is currently a trend. “Many of the kids who are doing this are not doing it for the same reasons that kids normally cut themselves”, the school social worker told me. Normally, these are kids who are using their body as an outlet for extreme internal pain. But many of the kids currently involved are harming themselves as a result of peer effects: because their friends are doing it. Bizarre, right?

What can be done to stop trending self-mutilation? Is some kind of macro-level intervention needed?

(Note, Reach and the Kids Helpline are two organisations that provide help and support for young people.)