On Friday 02nd June, I was invited to contribute to a panel discussion in a session for a secondary school teacher-only-day professional development conference. The conference was co-ordinated by an organisation called Wellington Loop ( www.wellingtonloop.net.nz) and was entitled LoopEd 2017. The all-Massey University panel was comprised of a social scientist, natural scientist, mathematician (and ex secondary school teacher) and – ‘me’ (ex-secondary school teacher and now teacher of pre- and in-service teachers). The focus of discussion before an audience of 40 cross-curricular secondary school teachers was transitions to tertiary learning.

A few interesting points emerged in our shared and at time passionate discussion:

  1. There continues to be considerable tension between the Sciences and Mathematics and the Social Sciences and Humanities about how much subject content knowledge students should learn as they consider tertiary study. On the one hand, the sciences clearly valued scientific and mathematical knowledge, at applied and conceptual levels, and implored the teachers to focus on teaching relevant content focused achievement standards (NCEA Level 3 Physics achievement standard on electricity was cited as an example) . On the other hand, in the ‘softer’ disciplines, skills dominated. Reference was made to students’ ability to critically engage with text, to formulate and express a position, and to independently research topics about which they may know very little, or be quite new to. The need for a pre-requisite kete of content knowledge was not nearly as obvious.
  2. Metacognitive awareness was raised in the context of teachers’ understanding their own disciplinary learning skill set, and the need to make these explicit to their students. The novice/expert model was mentioned to argue the importance of teachers making visible the sorts of skills that made them experts in the first place. When the question was posed – how did you learn to be a/an…. – the number of blank and bemused looks suggested that teaching information skills in disciplinary contexts, of nurturing the novice towards expertise, hadn’t arisen as a useful pedagogic analogy and wasn’t an obvious feature of who they thought they were – their professional identity.
  3. That reaction suggested to me that talking transitions between secondary and university sectors is really challenging. Their respective world views, and the priorities they set, or have set for them, make constructing a common discourse difficult. To give you some examples: when the panelists talked of academic skill sets, many teachers talked of achievement standards; when assessments were mentioned, teachers talked of credits, catch-ups, resubmissions and exemplars, while the university trades (still) in marks, A – E (and F) grades, and non-negotiable course deadlines; where secondary school teachers talked of scaffolding and nurturing learning and learners, universities talked of independence, internal motivation, and self-reliance; and where Year 13 represents the completion of a process started 5 years earlier (our work is done!), universities see Year One as the beginning of a three and five year process (our work is just beginning!). We need to ask: in the current separate secondary/tertiary structure, do schools really look beyond that which they are directly responsible for, and do universities really care where and what their students have come from?

There was one experienced school librarian in attendance. She made the point that without embedded and explicitly taught information skills, learning in any discipline would by definition be difficult. She argued fluently that it was these skills that were instrumental in transforming subject content information into authentic disciplinary knowledge, and that if we didn’t elevate these skills to visible and prominent features of teacher practice, we would be graduating expert novices, uncritically replicating but never deeply understanding what they have been taught or claim to know. Many in the group nodded in agreement – I spiritually high fived her!!

A big challenge for our Project is to develop a common discourse, ways of both intuitively and deliberately communicating which enable information sharing and knowledge building, express what we believe and value, and constructs a conversation powerful enough to challenge traditional orthodoxies. I hope a few teachers in the audience and our Massey panelists at this LoopEd conference might, like our Project, contribute to this alternative transition discourse.

Ken Kilpin

22 June 2017