To coach or not to coach




By Ms Sally Ruston

Head of Junior School

New school years are filled with great hope, excitement and the potential for endless possibilities. New uniforms, books, curriculum and classmates create such energy and optimism. Time can seem limitless and everything seems possible. Yet we as adults in this context, we must support our girls in making equally wise decisions about how their time is spent. It was this topic that I spoke about at a recent  Parent Information session where I made clear the school's position on spending precious discretionary time in out of school coaching lessons and coaching homework.

Below I make the argument as to why the School does not endorse or support such coaching practices.  

We, as educators and parents, all want the most altruistic of outcomes for our girls. We are deeply committed to seeing each girl:

be a successful learner 
have a strong sense of wellbeing and happiness
have positive friendship groups 
be compassionate world citizens with a will to serve 

We want them to be 21st Century learners, ready to embrace a career and contribute meaningfully to creating a better world. This infographic below well articulates the skills, attributes and dispositions believed necessary for our girls to be successful. 




We want so much for our girls and while the pathway to such success is well articulated above, the time taken to achieve such outcomes is extensive. There isn't a magic pill or quick solution. Great, complex, engaging and successful learning takes time. 
Where then is the place of coaching, that by its very nature is didactic and requires rote learning, memorising and anything but critical and creative thinking? 

Some of you may already have your feathers ruffled and wish to protest. But I want to make clear that coaching in out of school coaching settings is not a means of learning that we endorse or support at Abbotsleigh.

I don't live in a fool's paradise as I agree that if you repeatedly drill the same material over and over, you will get better at that one thing. This was a reasonable practice back in the industrial revolution when you were likely to have just one job in a lifetime that was highly repetitive, and where there was a belief that intellect was fixed at birth. 

Equally I will agree that when it comes to learning tables, performing a musical piece to virtuosi standard, (where 10,000 hours are needed) or perfecting a sporting skill, repeated best practice is needed and is the most effective means of ensuring success. 
So now you might argue that I am arguing against myself. 

My first point is this: for our girls to be successful in our world today they need to be flexible, adaptable learners who can make meaning for themselves. 

My second point is this: we are all time poor and discretionary time is limited. Thus we must be most judicious in making decisions about how our girls spend their precious childhood. 

We need to decide what we actually want our girls to become good at? Is it rote learning and always relying on others to make meaning for them? Or are we committed to developing the 21st Century learning skills? Whatever it is we value we need to jealously guard time to enable these attributes to flourish. 

If we accept as a given that time is limited due to the following factors:
there are only 24 hours in a day 
Abbotsleigh has one of the longest school days of any school in Australia that is extended through set homework 
many of the girls travel some distance to get to school 
research states that nightly sleep of at least 10-12 for T-2 girls is essential to enable optimal learning 
eating a nutritious meal takes time
essential daily ablutions also consume time 

This leaves very little precious discretionary time. By any calculation it is not more than 1-1.5 hours a day even in the best of conditions. How then should this precious time be spent given we all want well-rounded happy girls ready to robustly contribute and succeed? 

So let's return to my first point about what the long haul aim is for successful lifelong learners and contributors to our society. So what are the best routes to this outcome? We are not looking for one perfect route but rather a way of viewing childhood that enables our girls to be the best they can be as unique individuals.

Abbotsleigh girls do consistently achieve outstanding results across multiple fields due to the experiences and opportunities provided by the school. Academically, this is seen in NAPLAN results and in the recent 2016 Year 12 HSC where the following remarkable standards were achieved across the cohort: 
Abbotsleigh average  ATAR was 94 
o State average ATAR was 69 
12% of Abbotsleigh girls scored 99+               
44% of Abbotsleigh girls scored 95
67% of Abbotsleigh girls scored 90 
o 16.5% of the State scored 90  
86% of Abbotsleigh girls scored 80 
o 32.6 of the State scored 80  
Added to this is your commitment to support around homework and engaging in meaningful conversations and reading at home. If you are able to accept that these measures are well placed to seeing enabling academic outcomes, then your daughter has good discretionary time to find her areas of passion by joining a sports team, the debating club, the ceramics group, learning an instrument, dancing or visiting a gallery. Yet it is equally important that she also has unstructured time just to muck around in the back yard, play imaginary games, read or go on a play date. 

I also comment here that I know the peer pressure to seek out coaching on you as parents is enormous. In fact, there are those who would label you a neglectful parent if you don't do so. I would go so far as to say that great parents are those who are able to keep balance for their children and ensure that living and deep, meaningful learning are balanced. 

Miss Betty Archdale's words still ring true today: 

'With education, Abbotsleigh girls can and do or be anything'

However, I add, they can't do everything. 

So our job as wise adults, absolutely committed to our girls' wellbeing and success is to make very careful decisions about how they spend their time so they are match fit for the ever changing world into which they are moving. 

The crux of the matter is that if a child is spending much or all of her discretionary time in coaching or on coaching homework, then so much else that matters more is crowded out. Why would we do this when we know the limited role and value of rote learning and memorised formulas in an age of google? And where 21st Century skills are the end game?

Let me illustrate with a primary age mathematics example where we strive to see our girls as eager and able mathematicians; not just good at mathematics. 

One of the activities we regularly engage the primary girls in is the creation of a 4-way maths proof. We want the girls to see that there are often multiple ways in which a problem can be solved. You will attest to this when you try to show your daughter how you once solved such a question and are promptly told that your suggestion is unhelpful and unwanted. We are keen for our girls to realise that a number of problem-solving approaches are possible, yet one is probably less likely to produce errors and more efficient in reaching a solution. In this way we help our girls to walk away from perfectionist tendencies and to revel in the trial and error and multiple pathways to making sense of solving problems. 

Yes, to be successful in this exercise she needs explicit knowledge and automatic recall of basic number facts. Between school and home, we will make sure these are in place. Then the joy is had in exploring the possibilities and application of such knowledge. This is not the work of coaching houses where the focus typically is on only knowing what you are taught and never given the opportunity to make new meaning for yourself. Great mathematicians find joy and delight in engaging in problem solving where they use their wits, imagination and belief in themselves as learners to achieve success. 

Let me illustrate with an Infants age literacy example where we strive to see our girls as eager and able readers; not just good at decoding print. 

It is my experience that a focus on drilling decoding without reference to meaning results in children who are great at 'barking' at print but poor at comprehending and reluctant to engage with texts. The whole purpose of reading is lost. 

Research is clear that the best predictor of a child's success in becoming a successful reader is that they have a very broad vocabulary, knowing multiple synonyms for the same word and have purposefully used this language in real life settings and contexts. None of this happens in a coaching setting. But this does happen when you share literature with your child, make time for trips to the beach, the museums, the bush, the farm and engage in rich conversations and big questions on any topic of interest. 

I love this quote from Einstein: 

"Imagination is more important than knowledge."

Yet it is this second sentence of the quote that is so hopeful, encouraging and uplifting: 

"For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."

Our commitment at Abbotsleigh is ensuring the girls have the 21st Century skills and a plethora of experiences that encourage them to explore, persist and imagine their way into a world yet unknown. Let's make sure that along that journey we purposefully and deliberately make time for the imagining.



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