Letter from BOT June 2019 including Letter from Parents April 2019

10 June 2019

Dear parents and caregivers

Thank you for your letter setting out your concerns about device usage at Kohimarama School.

The Board convened a special meeting on 9 May to consider the letter and explore what actions the Board and School should take. On 13 May, representatives from the Board and the parent community met to further understand and discuss the concerns. The Board and the Senior Management Team have since undertaken a gap analysis around the school’s use of devices. This work has been ongoing and was further considered at our Board meeting on 27th May. We are now writing to you to outline our response.

Introduction

The Board and management of our school are grateful for the analysis and thoughtful feedback that went into your letter. A strength of Kohimarama School is the strong engagement by our broader community in school life and in the education of our children. Your initiative to raise issues of concern and suggest improvements is very much in keeping with our strategic goal for open and constructive communication between the school and the parent and caregiver community. It also reinforces our common desire to see the best possible education for our children.

Thank you too for the recognition that we are undertaking this discussion from a point of alignment on strategic objectives on student achievement, learner agency and digital citizenship.

The Board and Senior Management Team of Kohimarama School are proud of the academic results achieved by our students; results that continue to place our school in the upper echelons of student achievement in New Zealand. We are also proud of our outstanding review from the Education Review Office late last year, which confirmed the high level of confidence the Government has with the governance, strategic leadership and educational outcomes being demonstrated by Kohimarama School. We believe these results are something the whole community can be proud of and demonstrate that we can have a high degree of trust in our Senior Management Team and teaching staff to deliver excellent educational outcomes.

We have considered the material you have sent us with a very open mind. We embrace the fact that even high performing schools will often have improvements that can be made based on additional information, feedback and discussion. This is particularly the case in an area as dynamic and evolving as the role of technology in school education. To this end, we have taken note of the full range of issues you have raised, reviewed current school practices and procedures, considered best-practice research and considered the obligations placed on us by the Ministry of Education. We discuss the issues raised in your letter below.

We would encourage the community to read the latest published material on device usage for children from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health published January 2019 and the OECD summary report, “What Do We Know About Children and Technology”, published April 2019.

https://www.rcpch.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2018-12/rcpch_screen_time_guide_-_final.pdf

http://www.oecd.org/education/ceri/Booklet-21st-century-children.pdf

Communication

It is apparent there is some mis-information in the community around the School’s use of devices, the rationale for using them and how they are used as part of a balanced curriculum.

The School acknowledges that it could have done better in terms of keeping the community informed about changes in pedagogy, how devices and learning applications were to be used as a tool in the school, and the considerations and policies around network security and cyber safety. Better communication would have ensured the School community was aware of changes and surfaced any concerns earlier.

We wish to be transparent about the learning that occurs daily in the school across a range of activities that lead to a balanced curriculum. To achieve this the School proposes the following:

  1. In term three the school has planned consecutive open days to allow our community to be part of, and observe the learning with the children to see and understand what we do. We believe that this will be a positive and open opportunity to work in the Kohimarama Way and with the Kohimarama Values.
  2. The School will arrange some Parent and Caregiver education evenings on SchoolTalk so the community better understands this essential tool as part of agentic learning and reporting.
  3. Continue to place material on the website linked through the newsletter. We currently have material that has been presented to the school community at this year’s Meet the Teacher evening. Two important pieces that underline the schools direction include ‘Future Focused Learning’ and ‘Learner Agency’. Further videos are planned covering areas such as Learner Design.
  4. The school has created a draft communication plan that aims to ensure that the community receives timely, accurate and clear messages about teaching and learning in the  school.

Health and Safety

Policies and Protocols

 Health and Safety at Kohimarama School is covered by the Health, Safety and Welfare Policy. The next scheduled review of this policy is Term 3 2019. The policy contains comprehensive digital technology and cybersafety procedures to guide the Schools use of the internet, mobile phones, and other ICT devices and equipment.

Sitting under the School policies are protocols. The Teacher and Student Device Protocol requires that “Every 30 minutes of using devices, students will take a short break”.

The Ministry of Education provide guidance on Safety in Technology and specifically references guidelines for the physical environment, including having mini breaks, avoiding glare and that devices should be used at tables.

Relevant Policies and Protocols can be found here:

The Board, School Management and Ministry are confident that the existing policies are fit for purpose and meet the aims of National Administration Guideline 5.

Current Practice

Current practice is that our teachers continually monitor and evaluate the physical needs of the students, i.e. have they been sitting for a period and need to move? When they are ready to move, they get up and stretch before moving to the next piece of learning. In accordance with the school’s policies, protocols and Ministry of Education guidelines the school ensures:

  1. A break from computer tasks every 30 minutes to allow for movement and change of visual focus.
  2. A mix of sedentary and active tasks in each student and classroom day. (A balance of curriculum incl. physical education, arts, fitness etc).
  3. Encourage students to use good posture, frequently change positions and respond to discomfort by changing positions.
  4. Break times are device-free, outdoors whenever possible, and should promote the development of gross motor skills when possible.

The school ensures a balanced curriculum is taught combining all curriculum areas including humanities, sciences, physical education and health to ensure that a variety of modalities are availed to students.

The School is conscious that when using devices students require seating and workspaces that are comfortable and promote good posture. Kohimarama, like many schools, has moved to new ergonomic chairs in most areas of the school which are both age and height specific. The development of Innovative Learning Environments and upgrade work to school buildings will also support better lighting, ventilation and sound.

Proposed Approach

Notwithstanding the above, there are always opportunities for improvement. There is no reason why we cannot implement a higher standard than that required by NAG5. What this review has highlighted is that the School’s Teacher and Student Device Protocol could be more robust and explicit. The School should review the guidance from the MOE and best practice to further entrench these practices within the day-to-day fabric of the school. It also provides an opportunity to ensure all teachers at the school are implementing the agreed protocol. We will be inviting interested parties within the School community with relevant expertise to help in the re-drafting of the protocol.

Cybersafety and Monitoring

Policies and Protocols

Cybersafety and monitoring is currently covered by a number of Policies, Protocols and external providers. All can be found below.

Current Practice

The School internet security is provided by Network for learning (N4L). N4L is a Government Company that connects 98% of New Zealand schools to internet services, through a safe and secure Managed Network. This gives students access to the digital world for learning, which supports the New Zealand Government’s goals for education. The Managed Network also comes with industry-leading safety and security tools, creating a safer online environment that gives Principals, teachers and parents the confidence to use digital technologies for learning. This includes robust internet filtering, threat protection and firewall, plus a dedicated Helpdesk team. Information pertaining to the services of N4L will be posted to the Kohimarama School website by the end of this term.

N4L controls access to searches and content arriving on student devices through the internet. Our individual school settings are on par with other schools and we review these settings bi- annually. If we become aware of concerning content or use, we are able to ask N4L to investigate and close off access immediately. We are also updated when any new threats are detected by N4L. All reports including the April 2019 report are available for members of the school community to view upon request.

Hapara is software used in the School by teachers to monitor device use, and to block use of individual devices if necessary. Teachers, Team Leaders and Management identify device use outside of the protocol and/or cybersafety agreement using Hapara. Numbers of schools in conjunction with G Suite use Hapara. It provides for easy access and visibility into learner work and to view learner browsing activity during class. Teachers move around the classroom to observe the learning. Hapara supports this digitally.

Any breaches or concerns around network security or inappropriate use of devices should be alerted to the School through the existing communication channels. The school uses its complaints policy to deal with issues raised.

These are investigated as per the flowchart:  ConcernsComplaintsFlowchart To date, the school has not received any complaints from the School community around the inappropriate use of the internet.

Proposed Approach

Ensuring our Learners’ Cyber Safety is of utmost importance to the School. We propose to undertake a review of current internet controls and monitoring with the purpose of ensuring the current Government applications meet the School’s and Community’s high expectations of online security.

One option the School has been investigating is the software Family Zone provided by Linewize: https://www.linewize.com/.

Family Zone looks to provide a high level of online safety while respecting student agency and helps schools create high trust environments and address inappropriate use. Programmes used such as YouTube are able to be locked down to allow only teacher selected items to be viewed. It can also be deployed as a community tool to support families at home. We are currently working with the Family Zone team investigating what the possible implementation of Family Zone at Kohimarama School would look like.

The implementation of Family Zone would cost the School in excess of $5000 per year. This is a large expense for a School and the money would need to be taken from other School resources in the Annual School Budget. It is therefore very important that any new Cyber Security software achieves significant benefits over and above the current Government endorsed Network for Learning.

It was determined by the current Board that any decisions around new large budget items such as Family Zone is best decided by the new Board which will be in place before the end of June.

We would appreciate the input from anyone in the school community with relevant experience in Network Security and monitoring to help conduct a cost benefit review of current applications versus potential new ones such as Family Zone.

SchoolTalk

SchoolTalk was introduced in 2018 when National Standards were removed. All schools were required to design learning, measure progress and report against the New Zealand Curriculum. SchoolTalk provides an efficient and effective way of undertaking the above. Other tools have been developed to operate in this space and the school discussed with staff the changes required and used the knowledge and experience of a focus group of teachers to look at two tools before making a decision to adopt SchoolTalk.

SchoolTalk enables Learner Agency by allowing each student and their teacher to track and manage their individual progress. It is an efficient tool for teachers to plan and design personalised learning. For parents and caregivers, SchoolTalk makes learning visible and gives them a more holistic view of their child’s learning progress. It also provides the opportunity for parents to support their child in informed ways through a resource database that is linked to specific learning intentions from the curriculum.

The key benefits of SchoolTalk are:

  1. Enables agency for our learners, making learning visible.
  2. Real time reporting on progress and achievement for parents, students and teachers.
  3. Creates efficiency for teachers – gap analysis, learning design, differentiating and personalising learning.
  4. Creating a learning partnership with whanau, providing resources and personalised support.
Current Practice

SchoolTalk exists in a structured environment with appropriate levels of teacher oversight depending on the year group and individual child. As the main tool for enabling learner agency, SchoolTalk is implemented according to learner agency guidelines. “When students first begin learning these [agency] skills, educators … provide a good amount of targeted support. Educators can then gradually remove this … as students become more self-directed in their learning” Hinton, C., Fischer, K. W., & Glennon, C. (2012).

At any year group level, authentic teacher engagement is integral to the way SchoolTalk is used at Kohimarama School. Teachers very much lead the children’s use of SchoolTalk. Evidence is uploaded in consultation with and under the direction of the teacher. The way, amount and type of evidence that is uploaded is dependent on the task and the level of the student. A year 3 child will use SchoolTalk with a considerable amount more teacher input and oversight than a child in year 7/8. Evidence is generally uploaded at the completion of a task not during it and adds to the students’ learning and understanding of the task.

SchoolTalk allows teachers and students to identify their next learning steps. Teachers use their professional judgement and relationships with their students to ensure that individual children are using SchoolTalk effectively to support high achievement. In 2018 ERO reported that our “Leaders and teachers very effectively monitor and track learner progress and use this information for decision making to support accelerated development.”

The Board and School Management fully support our teachers use of SchoolTalk as described above. The School ensures teachers are provided with considerable professional development in SchoolTalk, assisted by both internal and external facilitators. ERO in 2018 reviewing Kohimarama School noted that “The school’s organisational culture promotes purposeful and focused inquiry, knowledge building and evaluation. Leaders and teachers value the voice and perspectives of children and the community, and incorporate these into school priorities for inquiry.”

Often when there is a change in pedagogy, new terminology appears. This is the case with the word ‘workshops’ that seems to have caused some misunderstanding. A workshop is exactly the same as a teacher guided lesson or group, which has always been, and continues to be core business in a classroom.

As with SchoolTalk, ‘workshops’/ teacher guided lessons are still very much led by the teacher. As children mature and have a greater capacity to exercise agency in their learning, they have the opportunity to ask for and attend workshops that they feel would meet their learning needs. Classroom teachers encourage and support students to attend appropriate workshops to meet their learning needs when required. Learning needs are made clear to students through discussion with their teachers, use of SchoolTalk, and various assessments that students have undertaken. As always, teachers use their professional judgement and knowledge of their learners to direct children to the appropriate workshops/guided teaching sessions as they see fit for their students. If necessary, a teacher will sign a student up if the student hasn’t signed themselves up. The use of SchoolTalk tool has made this aspect of teaching and learning more powerful and time relevant for both the teacher and the student.

Another key element of learner agency is the development of student assessment capability. Central to the practice of good assessment and learning is the concept that students who truly understand and are involved in their learning and assessment will experience accelerated rates of achievement. To enable students to take charge of their own learning, they need to be deliberately and systematically taught how to be assessment capable and active in their learning (this is learner agency). SchoolTalk enables this by allowing the child to see exactly where they are at in their learning; what they do know, what they don’t know, and what the next steps are to achieving what they need to know.

The SchoolTalk tool is not experimental – there are similar tools with the ability for students to ‘upload’ pieces of work to a student/teacher/parent portal in the education community at large. There are a number of tools that operate in a similar way that are used by schools throughout New Zealand. The PacT tool tracks and monitors student achievement against the NZ Curriculum. SeeSaw allows students and teachers to share learning etc.

Kohimarama adopted SchoolTalk after careful analysis as it was determined it was the best of the tools available to make teaching, learning and the student’s achievement transparent to all involved. John Hattie, Former Dean of Education at Auckland University, Laureate Professor Deputy Dean of MGSE, Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, Chair, Board of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, Associate Director of the ARC-SRI: Science of Learning Research Centre, had this to say about SchoolTalk;

Thank you for showing me the SchoolTalk planner — wow is this stupendous I would love to include commentary about it as part of Visible Planning”.

Deb Masters Global Director Visible Learning, Cognition Education also commented;

I was indeed extremely impressed with the SchoolTalk app when I caught a glimpse of it last week. I was particularly impressed with the way learners could discuss their learning and plan their own daily schedule based on workshops that are offered”.

Proposed Approach

SchoolTalk is an essential tool in developing learner agency, measuring student progress and reporting against the New Zealand Curriculum. The Board and Senior Management Team are comfortable with its use.

Where the School could have done better is to ensure the community was informed and had a better opportunity to understand the rational for using SchoolTalk, how it is used and the benefits it provides. What the School proposes to address this is:

  1. Communicate SchoolTalk rationale and use more comprehensively to the parent community. This is a central piece in our draft communication plan designed to increase knowledge about the tool.
  2. Continue to promote and enhance the Kohimarama School learning community where confidence in the school and its pedagogy is understood.
  3. Continue to develop pedagogy in line with learner agency.
  4. Continue to ensure on going professional learning and development for staff on Continue to ensure on going professional learning and development for staff on SchoolTalk.

Handwriting

We agree that fluid and legible handwriting is important. The New Zealand Curriculum requires students to have legible handwriting by year 8. The Curriculum is very light on handwriting and there are no standards or requisites for handwriting to be assessed.

Parents have raised a good point regarding the amount of time given to handwriting. It is important to remember however that research consistently shows that when students use word processors such as Google Docs rather than write in longhand, the amount of writing increases, the quality of writing improves, and this is particularly the case for low-achieving writers, (Hattie 2009).

Current Practice

Handwriting lessons are planned and taught from year 0 through year 4. In terms of completing work, teachers use their professional judgement to make the decision around the best tools for the learner for a given task.

Proposed Approach

While handwriting has always been part of the teaching programme at Kohimarama School, it is timely to revisit whether our current practice is fit-for-purpose. Teachers throughout the school will review the Handwriting curriculum. Appropriate professional learning and development will be designed to support them in this.

There will be a greater focus on using pen and paper in classrooms. This change has already been implemented in response to the concerns raised.

Excessive Use of Devices

Concern about screen time has been identified in the letter and is currently a topic of interest in the educational sphere with a lot of research being conducted. There are multiple research sources that provide guidelines for screen time, but we have focused on the OECD and NZ Ministry of Health guidelines as we feel they are most relevant to our setting. We would once again direct our community the latest research on Screen Time produced by the OECD and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health:

https://www.rcpch.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2018-12/rcpch_screen_time_guide_-_final.pdf We believe that the risks from screen exposure should not be overstated. The evidence is relatively weak overall. Further, the magnitude of impact of screens is small on key health outcomes. Lastly, the literature takes little account of the increasing demands for school homework to be undertaken on screens. We note there is no evidence that homework undertaken on screens is associated with greater or lesser health harms or benefits than that undertaken more traditionally.

http://www.oecd.org/education/ceri/Booklet-21st-century-children.pdf
“Schools and education systems play a key role in supporting safe and responsible Internet use. The challenge for schools lies in their ability to reduce the negative uses of the Internet and digital devices while maintaining their contributions to teaching, learning and social connection.”

Current Practice

The School does not have any prescriptive rules around how long students spend using devices. Our Teachers choose the most appropriate tool to achieve the best learning outcomes for our students. Sometimes this tool will be pen and paper, sometimes it will be a device, other times it will be a white board or outdoors. We have trust in our teaching professionals to make the right decision around the most appropriate tool for learning.

What we encourage our Teachers to do is to not substitute devices for other learning methods. If the learning outcomes can be achieved by using pen and paper, then this should be the default. However it is important to note that technology can enable experiences and learning that were previously impossible without it.

Proposed Approach

The school is aware of OECD and NZ Ministry of Health guidelines around the time spent on devices. The School Management Team in consultation with teaching staff have conducted an empirical assessment of the time devices are used in class at Kohimarama School. The table below compares average device use per day in minutes in Kohimarma School with OECD and MOH guidelines.

Table one – Daily Device Use in Minutes per day

2019 Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5 Year 6 Year 7 Year 8
OECD 25 38 51 64 77 90 103 120
MOH 20 30 45 60 75 90 105 120
Kohimarama 15 35 50 45 65 100 130 130

When screen time was averaged out we see that it is broadly in line with these guidelines. It is important to note that the above is an average, and that on some days devices are not used at all, while on other days they may be used more due to the specific learning. It is also noted that the above is a reflection of what happens in the classroom and does not take into account time spent of devices at home completing homework. We believe that as a school we are very close to the recommended guidelines although we will continue to be mindful that in some years we are at or slightly above the top end of the recommended figure.

Research into the amount of appropriate screen time in schools is evolving . What is commonly accepted is that there are some negative implications of using screens before going to bed; that screen time should not be the sole focus, rather it is what our students are doing on their devices, as all screen time is not created equal; and that screen time may displace positive activities such as exercise and positive social interaction.

The quality time students spend on their device has been discussed at length by teaching staff within teams and we have produced an elearning matrix of the programmes that we are currently using. These programmes are chosen to strengthen or enhance the teaching and as new programmes are developed they will be considered for use. In other words this is not a static list, i.e. when better programmes are reviewed and endorsed older ones will be removed. We are all aware that we are not the only educational institution grappling with the screen time issue, and during our research into this issue discovered that Maryland General Assembly in the USA passed legislation on 1 July 2018. This requires “the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) to, in consultation with the Maryland Department of Health (MDH), develop health and safety best practices for the use of digital devices in school classrooms by June 1, 2019”. Once this is developed, it will be one of the first guidelines of its kind. As a future step we will review the recommendations of this guideline and others that may emerge and assess how they could relate to our school.

Term 2 2019 E LEARNING MATRIX

Consistency in the Use of Devices

The parent letter highlighted a lack of consistency in the approach to devices, noting significant individual freedom that teachers have and resulting disparities in device use across the school. The school uses a variety of applications and programmes that support and enhance learning. These are vetted by staff and placed in the appropriate class level. These are also related to the appropriate curriculum levels.

Current Practice

The school looks to balance the desire for consistency with the ability for our teachers to tailor the activities in their classroom to the needs of the class, and to the needs of individual learners. The key focus of teachers at all times is to achieve the very best outcomes for our learners. The School creates a degree of consistency through the development of policies and protocols creating the framework and boundaries for teachers to operate in while allowing the freedom for teachers to use their professional judgement to support better learning.

This approach leverages teachers’ professional skills and is based on well researched theories of learner agency: “Sustained higher achievement is possible when teachers use approaches that enable students to take charge of their own learning. Such approaches do not leave the students ‘to discover’ in an unstructured environment. Rather, they are highly structured in supporting student agency and sustained and thoughtful engagement.” Alton-lee, A. (2003).

The inconsistency that may be detected between classes is enacting the approach described above, but overall we believe this approach, within the appropriate frameworks policies and standards, is the best way to get great results for our learners and balance consistency and freedom to adjust to the needs of students.

Proposed Approach

The School does not feel any change to the current approach is required. Inconsistency is by design rather than mismanagement. Team planning, particularly within Inquiry, supports teachers jointly understanding the goals and outcomes required for accelerated learning. This will continue, therefore ensuring that the design for learning extends across the year group. Teachers can and will continue to deliver the learning design based on the needs of the students in their class.

Conclusion

The Board, management, staff and community should be very proud of the academic results achieved by Kohimarama School, which ranks us very well among our peers. Even though the school is starting from a high absolute level, we continue to see incremental improvements year-on-year.

The Board feel this is testament to the calibre of our team of professional and dedicated teachers who engage well with our learners, and policies and frameworks implemented by the school.

Our key measure of learning effectiveness is how our students are achieving against the curriculum and our learning dispositions. As we introduce digital learning tools we closely monitor for any changes in student achievement and wellbeing. We also take into account the latest research, learnings from other schools in our community, and insights from the Ministry of Education to evolve and refine our approach.

Our Senior Management Team is in regular contact with the Principals of other primary and intermediate schools in East Auckland and has discussed with them the approach these different schools are taking towards use of devices and technology in their school programmes. These conversations have reinforced to us that the approach Kohimarama School is taking is very much in line with common practice among our Auckland school cohort. We will continue to stay in touch with these schools to compare notes, benchmark and collaborate on best practice.

As a learning organisation the School is always looking for ways to improve. The School will look to make and implement changes suggested above to ensure the School and it learners are well set up for the future. We will always be open to further input from parents and caregivers and the school community and the school leadership team will always be ready to answer questions or to meet with parents and caregivers to discuss specific issues or concerns.

The Board of Trustees, Senior Management Team and staff thank you for the opportunity to have dialogue and engage on the use of devices to support and enhance our children’s learning. We thank you for your concern. Together, we make our school learning community strong, vibrant, achievement focused and relational.

Yours sincerely,

Brad Dunstan

On behalf of the Board of Trustees, Kohimarama School

 

 

 

17 April 2019

To: The Principal and the Chair of the Board of Trustees Kohimarama School

112 Kohimarama Road
Kohimarama,
Auckland

Re: Parent Concerns on Device Use at Kohimarama School

Dear Paul and Brad,

On 10 April 2019, a group of twenty-four Kohimarama School parents met to share their concerns about the rollout and implementation of SchoolTalk, of the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy, and of class-time device use at Kohimarama School. Several parents sent their apologies to the meeting. Many of the parents who attended the meeting have previously engaged with the school, either contacting teachers or management, in relation to their concerns about the way devices are used. A significant number of additional parents who did not attend but who share the concerns of this group have come forward since the meeting, as evidenced by the 114 parent names attached to this letter.

This letter sets out the group’s main observations, concerns, and interim requests resulting from this meeting.

School Objectives

Firstly, it is important to state the high level of alignment the group shares with the objectives of the school. Namely:

  1. Deepening learner engagement;
  2. Growing digital citizens; and
  3. Getting children device-ready for secondary school.

We understand the role the school plays in preparing our children for an ever-changing environment, and we are committed to these goals. We are, however, concerned about the methods the school has implemented to achieve them, and it’s on this that we wish to engage with the Board of Trustees and management.

Engagement Process

We understand that not all decisions can be driven by consensus. However, there have been fundamental changes made to the teaching methods at the school through the parallel adoption of SchoolTalk, BYOD, e- learning, and the workshop approach to tuition. We view these new teaching methods as experimental. While we acknowledge these changes have been made with the best intentions, we question whether there is sufficient evidence-based research to support them. If there is evidence, we would like to see it.

The parent community was not consulted on these fundamental changes, and we are now observing, through the experiences of our children, the extent to which the school’s learning environment has changed. We are also seeing the issues that are arising as a direct consequence.

We have approached the school with our concerns over device use, but feel our concerns are in many cases being downplayed and/or ignored. As such, we feel it is necessary to restate our concerns and escalate to the appropriate levels to achieve change.

Parental Concerns about Device Use

Below are the key concerns discussed by the group of parents at the meeting.

Health and Safety

The implementation of new technologies raises significant health and safety concerns for our children that are not covered by existing school policies and it is unclear if the sustained use of devices with respect to health and safety has been adequately considered by the school.

Use of SchoolTalk

We have a number of concerns relating to SchoolTalk:

  • It shifts significant assessment responsibility to the children. While the teacher still appears to validate the evidence of learning provided, this doesn’t happen in real time, which reduces the value of the feedback.
  • The onus is put on the children to sign up for workshops in areas where they think they need additional help. This is an error-prone process with grave curricular consequences if children don’t ask for the necessary support. This is a big responsibility to be left on the child. Parents are concerned as some children are finding this level of ownership confusing and in some cases stressful.
  • The constant use of SchoolTalk demands typing rather than handwriting. There are several cases evidencing that children’s handwriting is seriously suffering as a result. Mastering handwriting is a critical requirement of the school curriculum and for children’s readiness for high school.
  • The process of constantly uploading evidence to SchoolTalk seems to be a heavy burden for children. Reliance on this process for assessment forces a high use of devices as it puts SchoolTalk at the heart of the education journey and takes away learning time that could be spent on other more valuable activities.

We would suggest that, at primary school age, children are best able to gain clarity on and ownership for their learning objectives through regular, supportive dialogue with their teachers. We have yet to see evidence that students develop greater learner agency via SchoolTalk compared to authentic teacher engagement.

In general, we don’t understand why this tool has been rolled out so widely and has been allowed to aggressively displace more traditional, proven learning methods.

We believe that the individual and accumulated impacts of SchoolTalk and other online learning applications[1] on the children, and associated educational outcomes, should be evaluated by a working group comprising the Principal, the Board of Trustees, and parent representatives. This review should include the concerns raised by the parents as well as anonymous feedback from teaching staff.

This would identify improvements that could be made to the current application of the tools and device uses in the school, noting that the focus should always be on the best outcomes for children, particularly with regard to health, safety, and wellbeing.

Interim Request #1: We would like to request that students from Years 3-6 stop uploading evidence into SchoolTalk, and that teachers are enabled to simply mark off completed items within the tool. We are sure that SchoolTalk offers excellent planning, monitoring and reporting capabilities for our teachers without the need for children to engage with the tool.

Excessive use of devices

We understand that our kids are digital natives, and agree that digital technology will be an important part of their lives. We see with concern, though, the amount of time spent on the devices and their use as a primary learning tool. This appears to be contrary to what is envisaged by the Digital Technologies curriculum (e.g. STEM concepts for growing digital citizens, which we support).

Some of the specific concerns in relation to the excessive use of devices are:

  •  excessive screen time through using devices for multiple purposes including the delivery of the core curriculum, for homework, and for learner agency (e.g. SchoolTalk and those applications referred to in Footnote 1). There is significant evidence-based research substantiating the negative health, safety, and wellbeing impacts on children associated with excessive screen time exposure. We have serious concerns over whether these impacts have been considered by the school in rolling out such extensive device-based learning programmes;
  •  exposure to gamification as a tool for learning, especially with regard to “Loot” boxes and other engagement tools that are conducive to addictive behaviours;
  •  use of devices outside of the school’s curricular activities (e.g. before school, lunch time, and unstructured class sessions);
  •  lack of monitoring through school IT systems of the amount of time individual students or classrooms are spending on devices and for what purpose.  It is clear that children are spending significant portions of their class time on devices. Furthermore, we have many examples from parents that writing, spelling, and maths books are coming home at the end of terms empty or near-empty. Parents are finding this particularly distressing, and worrying for their children, for all the reasons stated in this letter.  We would like to see device time reduced in line with published recommendations such as the OECD guidelines, which place it in the vicinity of 30 minutes per day, and a clear policy developed that defines the intent behind the use of devices, the appropriate uses, and specified time limits on device use per day for each year level.

 

Interim Request #2: As an immediate step, we request three things:

  •   That current device time is immediately reduced by half (capped at 30mins/day for junior students to absolute max 11⁄2 hrs/day for senior years), and device-free Thursday is retained for seniors.
  • –  That access to gaming applications (eg. StudyLadder, Kahoot., etc) are removed.
  • –  That most tasks involving written material (stories, etc.) are handwritten rather than typed.

 

Cybersafety and Monitoring

The security, filtering, and monitoring of device activity does not appear to be fit for purpose or working effectively. Concerns were raised some time ago about blocking certain problematic sites. The unfortunate example of [REDACTED FOR PRIVACY], while extreme, highlights the importance of ensuring effective security systems are in place to prevent such events occurring.

We were happy to learn in the meeting that some technical improvements will be put in place soon, but we as parents still have no knowledge of what is being done to ensure the safety of our children and the age-appropriateness of the sites children have access to.

Interim Request #3: We request that cybersafety and monitoring systems are immediately independently reviewed by specialists in this area, and recommendations for improvement are implemented and shared with parents. Access to YouTube should be removed immediately.

 

Lack of consistency within the School

We have observed a lack of clarity and consistency in the applications of device use in the classrooms by and between the teachers and management. Teachers are given individual freedom over how devices are used in the classroom, resulting in significant disparities in device use across the school.

Interim Request #4: We request that a more structured framework (appropriate to each year level) is documented and communicated in a transparent manner to all parents around device use in the classroom. This will ensure understanding and alignment across the organisation of the expectations on children, teachers, the Principal, and community. This way, not only can we feel more at ease that the approach is consistent, but we can be participants in the process.

Conclusion

While we see the need to move forward and adapt learning to this new digital world, we need to ensure that this generation of children does not pay the price for the early adoption of new tools and experimental educational methods that are subsequently proven to have unintended adverse consequences or be ineffective.

The wellbeing of our children is of paramount importance, and we urge the school to communicate with us and the wider parent community in relation to our concerns.

For completeness, we attach a supplementary PowerPoint document that includes more granular detail of parents’ experiences and concerns. It also documents some of the many articles and research findings about the adverse consequences of excessive device use in young people.

We would appreciate a formal response to our letter, including our interim requests. We also request a meeting between the Board of Trustees, management, and representatives from our community of concerned parents as soon as possible, to discuss these matters. We feel it is important for the Principal to communicate a specific plan for evaluating the extent to which children are engaged with digital technologies during the school day, and the efficacy of SchoolTalk as a learning tool.

We wish to engage constructively and collaboratively with the Board of Trustees and the school, and hope we can work together to ensure device use and the Digital Technology curriculum is delivered in a way that best serves our children’s learning needs as well as their physical and mental wellbeing.

We look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely,

Concerned Kohimarama School Parents

[1] e.g. educational games, Kindle, YouTube, research engines, Google Docs, Mathletics and the like.