Student wellbeing and multiple literacies in the digital age: two Australian challenges facing young people today

 Dr Michael Kindler, Principal, Stromlo High School address the Weston Creek Community Council on 26 June 2013 on the subject of Student wellbeing and multiple literacies in the digital age: two Australian challenges facing young people today.  His presentation follows …

Student wellbeing and multiple literacies in the digital age: two Australian challenges facing young people today
 Address to the Weston Creek Community Council, 26 June 2013
Dr Michael Kindler, Principal, Stromlo High School

 Thank you the opportunity to speak with you tonight. Everybody at one stage or another has had education done to them, so everybody has opinions on matters educational. Coming here involves considerable risk for me, because as you listen, you will probably be thinking:  that’s not right, he does not know what I went through, or I don’t agree with that, so I ask your ears to be gentle when listening to my words, because all I am doing is sharing with you my understanding of young people because my job is to best prepare them for their pathways past their post compulsory years of schooling onto the highway of their lives.

 Five years ago all Ministers of Education in Australia agreed on two educational Goals for all young Australians:  improving educational outcomes for all young Australians is central to the nation’s social and economic prosperity and will position young people to live fulfilling, productive and responsible lives. Young Australians are therefore placed at the center of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals.

Goal 1: 
Australian schooling promotes equity and excellence

Goal 2:
 All young Australians become: successful learners
, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens

I have chosen to talk about wellbeing and what I consider multiple competing literacies because I see these two topics at the center of educational success for young people living in Australia today.

What is meant by wellbeing, you ask? Looking around this room, it could be suggested that our wellbeing has something to do with quality of life, our health, work-life balance, and harmony in our family and personal relations. If we are well, then so should our young people be, right?

I lead a high school with just under 700 students aged from 11 to 16 years of age, and blush to admit that this my 37th year in education. Helping make sure students in our care are healthy and safe is vital for their learning and development.

So let us first talk about health issues besetting young people today. The number of Canberrans who are overweight or obese has reached an all-time high, with the latest Council of Australian Governments healthcare report showing the city’s residents continue to get fatter. The report, published on 24 May this year, shows the ACT’s obesity rate reached 25.2 per cent in 2011-12, three points below the national average of 28.1 per cent. But the percentage of overweight Canberrans jumped to 38.4 per cent, the highest of any state or territory and three points above the national average of 35.1 per cent. Now consider that in Canberra we have the best bicycle tracks and we spend more on gyms per 1000 head of population than is the case in any other city in Australia. So why is the body mass index of young people so out of control?

 One reason is lifestyle. We are increasingly victims of passive leisure pursuits. Sedentary activities, computers, video, on line and computer based games have never been more prevalent than they are today.

 Another reason is diet. I don’t know what you eat, but the facts are that across the nation we are eating more processed and fast food than ever before, which is both heavy in fat and rich in cholesterol. I have met students with type 2 diabetes, something that used not to occur in people under the age of 40 when I started teaching last century.

 The rate of allergies and food intolerances is also at an all time high, and we have to take extra care with anaphylactic children and children on medication. I won’t address the phenomenon of medicating children to manage attention deficit hyper activity disorders (ADHD) on this occasion, because you will want to go home tonight.

 A third reason is although we say we are a nation of swimmers, the facts are that fewer young people are learning to swim than has been the case one or two decades ago. This is partly because of our increased awareness of risk management and an aversion to take what we did not think were risks when we were young. I am referring to the syndrome of the nanny state.

 Schools struggle with crowded curricula, time management, transport costs, pool entry costs, and swimming instructor costs. Another reason is lack of government funding to school sport. In 2010 the Crawford Report was tabled to the Australian Government. The title: the Future of Sport in Australia.

 PUTTING SPORT AND PHYSICAL ACTIVITY BACK INTO EDUCATION After years of decline, it is time to once again make sport and physical education a priority in our education system. Teachers need better training and schools need better facilities (Crawford, 2010)

This Report has not been acted upon as I speak. I was not at all surprised when the London Olympics saw no Australian Swimmers gain gold. Too much money has been channeled into elite sport and not enough to ensure physical fitness in young people today.

 I hasten to say that Stromlo is an atypical school; we are very lucky to have a gym built during the BER and we have fantastic grounds as well as a community that strongly supports sports both inside and outside school hours. But the picture of physical well-being as defined by body mass index in Canberra is not what you want it to look like.

 Since 1945, our material wellbeing has steadily increased. The white goods revolution has made our lives easier. Cars and trips are more affordable than ever. Many of us live in houses with more than one toilet, we all have mobile phones, we are all on the internet. Shops are stacked with a greater range of consumer products than has ever been the case. We can have what we want.

 But depression and mental un-wellness has never been more prevalent in numbers, statistically and in the years of my teaching experience. Why is it the richer we are the less happy many of us become? I regularly listen to parents who are medicating their children with anti-depressants, have them seeing Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), seeing a psychologist, and our counselor cannot keep up with self-referring students for all sorts of issues, neglect, self-harm, peer pressure, bullying.

 There is no concrete evidence to suggest that children suffer or are traumatized when their biological parents separate. Of course when biological parents each choose to go their own way, change happens, and some families deal with that better than others. Schools are bedrock of what does not change at such times, and principals recognize the importance of providing a safe, steady and continuous learning environment while domestically things may be somewhat disruptive, and in a state of upheaval, often over some time.

 Week about children today are a common feature of how families choose to re-align. Some young people get used to such moveable homes more than others. Some find it a nuisance, but accept it as the way things are. The only point I make about this contemporary social phenomenon is this: for high school teachers to deliver the expertise of their learning area, students need to be ready, open and receptive to learn. Until the student is ready to learn, no amount of curriculum content teaching has any effect. Teachers have always needed to make students learning-ready, that is, to engage students in pastoral care activities to get students learning ready. Social upheaval has made our job harder, and more and more is expected of teachers.

 Understanding adolescent psychology is key to such learning success, and forming strong and positive relationships in class as role models. Peer support programs and leadership opportunities for young people are great instruments for allowing the student voice to be heard and to play a part in the learning community of a school.

 Before I leave the topic of wellbeing and move to the topic of multiple literacies, I just want to say something about trauma and self-harm. What traumatizes one individual may not traumatize another. Psychological trauma is a type of damage that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event. When that trauma leads to posttraumatic stress disorder, damage may change the person’s response to future stress. Trauma can be caused by a wide variety of events, but there are a few common aspects. There is frequently a violation of the person’s familiar ideas about the world and of their human rights, putting the person in a state of extreme confusion and insecurity. Making our students feel safe is my first priority. When you fly Qantas, the flight attendant says: your safety is our priority. So it is in schools, without seat belts but to encourage mental engagement and intellectual fermentation.

Typical causes and dangers of psychological trauma are sexual abuse, bullying, domestic violence, being the victim of an alcoholic parent, the threat of either, or the witnessing of either, particularly in childhood, life-threatening medical conditions, and/or medication-induced trauma.

 Catastrophic events that have forced people to become refugees, such as war or mass violence can also cause psychological trauma. Long-term exposure to situations such as extreme poverty or milder forms of abuse, such as verbal abuse, can be equally traumatic.

 There is a large body of empirical support for the use of cognitive behavioral therapy tp overcome trauma. Behaviour modification involves several steps, abreaction, being able to identify and narrate the trauma, understanding trauma, developing positive behavior strategies to overcome trauma, future thinking rather than wallowing in past wounds and self-pity, etc.

 Self-harm (laceration or drug overdose, including substance abuse or consumption of excess alcohol which is rising, while young people smoking is thankfully decreasing) is mainly used as a way of trying to cope with strong feelings and emotions. The reasons young people self-harm vary. Many who engage in self-harm have gone through tough experiences or damaging relationships they are trying to cope with. Self-harm is not just “attention seeking”, although people use self-harm as a way of letting others know they aren’t coping. Self-harm is a cry for help.

 Reasons young people give for their self-harm include trying to express complicated or hidden feelings, communicating a need for some support, proving to themselves that they are not invisible, feeling in control, getting an immediate sense of relief. A person may self-harm as a result of feeling a sense of guilt, depression, low self-esteem or self-hatred, but it is important to note that self-harming behaviour can be due to multiple reasons and affects people from all walks of life.

 Breaking the cycle of self-harm is something a person has to make a conscious decision to do and no-one can make that decision for them. There are a number of successful treatments for self-harm ranging from professional help to self-help. Some of these include cognitive behavioural therapy, talk therapy and medication. A tailored treatment plan adapts to individual circumstances. If the student rather does not want to talk to someone face-to-face, support services like Kids Helpline, Lifeline and eheadspace provide phone and online support services.

 Self harmers need to know that there is always someone out there who cares about their welfare; whether it’s a family member, friend, counsellor or doctor. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and tell someone how you’re feeling. There are heaps of techniques you can use to avoid using self-harm. The more alternatives to self-harm you provide yourself with, the more likely you are to develop more successful coping strategies.

 Multiple literacies

 Now let me ask you a question: imagine you have been given two scripts. You are an English teacher and you have to decide which of these two scripts is the better one. The first script is grammatically correct, sentences are complete, paragraphs are well structured, the script displays use of a wide vocabulary. In fact this script is beautifully written, obviously written by a native speaker of English, but does not answer the question.

 The second script expresses itself in fractured English, probably written by a person from a non-English speaking background, or from a person who is not fully in command of the conventions of written expression, but as you read through this script, you discover that this second script answers the question brilliantly. The first paper is well written but misses the point. The second paper handles ideas superbly but the expression suffers. To which script to you apportion the greater value?

 NAPLAN concentrates on conventions of writing, grammar and spelling. Of course managing such functional English is essential to enable students to become successful learners
, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens. Is such proficiency all that is needed for young people to become successful in Australia today?

The reason I have chosen the phrase multiple literacies is because NAPLAN proficiency is one skill set needed in Australia today, but not the only one. I would like to conclude this talk by adding four literacies to NAPLAN.

 One is emotional literacy (EQ, Daniel Goldman) as being more important than IQ. At Stromlo there are students who need identified learning support. Some have physiological learning difficulties that may be congenital, as a result of a difficult birth or accident since birth. Some are autistic, some are variously located on a spectrum with mild to acute manifestation of Asperger Syndrome. Some are gifted and talented.

 For all students, learning to manage emotions, which can range from anger management to learning how to socially interact and be learning ready, involves self-awareness and effort. Emotional literacy is interpersonal and developed as part of the relationships that happen in schools between students and students, teachers and students. EQ is a co-curricular but essential skill set for young Australians to have. EQ is not part of NAPLAN, but just as necessary as NAPLAN.

 Another is digital literacy, to understand how the wifi generation uses the internet, known as trawling meta-information skills. When I went to uni, we had lots of questions and few answers. Today, there are more answers than questions. Learning to use Google Chrome or Internet Explorer not to superficially surf, but to analyze and understand the intellectual quality, depth and richness of a quickly googled question is as relevant today as it was before the age of the internet.

 For example, to diagnose one’s health oneself using internet provided medical information obviously carries risks of false or misdiagnosis, without the expertise of a medically trained clinician. So understanding how best to use the Internet is a skill that is a feature of learning expectations this century. I call this paperless cognitive understanding.

 A further crucial literacy for young people is how use, not abuse, social networking. The other day I had a family in my office, perfectly nice parents, with a lovely 13 year old girl. The student had stopped attending a nearby high school because of Facebook bullying which had damaged her self-confidence and lowered her resilience. She hadn’t been to school for four weeks because she could not face her peers after what they had said about her on Facebook. In fact, she stayed at home in her room and completed school work away from the school. Did all this bullying occur on your smart phone, I asked. Yes it had.

 Turning to the parents, I asked if they were aware that people under the age of 14 are not meant to be on Facebook. What had the parents undertaken to manage this?  Stunned and embarrassed silence.  Facebook is causing more damage than doing good. Yes, it puts people in touch with each other. But it also brings out narcissistic tendencies in people, and if not self-regulated, can evoke cyber bullying of the worst kind. Our co-curricular program teaches e-mail etiquette and cyber safety.

 With your permission, I would like to finish on my hobby horse. It is increasingly recognized that we are living in a global, borderless knowledge economy. The industries that are thriving in this country are the service industries. We are witnessing manufactured goods arriving in Australia more cheaply and of better quality than we are able to produce. Just ask Mitsubishi or Ford or reflect on why you chose a car that was imported rather than domestically made.

 Did you know that there are 27 OECD economies, and among those, high school students in Australia have the worst record for time spent learning a language other than English? Intercultural understanding is one of seven Australian Capabilities that the Melbourne Declaration has identified as needed by young Australians this century.

 Next door to us is a country with ten times our population, with an economy that will double this decade, and is growing at twice the rate ours is, Indonesia. China is already our number one trading partner and is about to eclipse Europe and rivals the US in terms of economic might. The BRIC countries, Brazil, Russia and India are not far behind, and are the identified as the preferred growth economies this century.

 English is no longer the dominant language of internet websites: Chinese and Spanish are two languages that have overtaken English in sheer numbers of web sites, and Arabic is not far behind. Due to Australia’s history, our education system is still Euro-centric and is very slow at adapting to these paradigm shifts. I struggle to lead a high school in such challenging times. Yes we teach Indonesian and Japanese, as well as the language of two struggling economies, France and Italy, but I find we need to do more to help young people to lead successful, fulfilling and rewarding lives. Every student today should be learning at least one language other than English, not for one term or semester, but for several years. Thank you and I am now ready for you to refute any of my wild assertions.


 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Annual Year Book, AGPS, Canberra, 2012

 Council of Australian Government (COAG) Health Care Report, 2013, as reported in Canberra Times, 25 May 2013, pages 1&2

 MCEETYA, The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, 2008, found on website

 Goleman, Daniel Emotional Intelligence, Why it can matter more than IQ, 1996

Goleman, Daniel, Social Intelligence, The New Science of Human Relationships, Bantam, 2007

 Seligman, Martin, Authentic Happiness, Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment, 2003

 Seligman, Martin, Flourish, A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, 2011

 Whitby, Greg, Educating Gen Wi-Fi: How We Can Make Schools Relevant for 21st Century Learners, ABC Books, 2013

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