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Is there a right way to teach our regional kids?

THE curriculum called for an understanding of geometric shapes - and so robotic dogs were born.

They came complete with circuit board to light up the eyes and move the head.

Mathematics. Tick. Science. Tick. Robotics. Tick.

These dogs have been built in classrooms far from our state's capital with the help of specialists willing to share their expertise to students hundreds of kilometres away.

The University of Southern Queensland's Stephen Winn said it was impossible to expect regional and rural towns to have expertise in every teaching area and unrealistic to train any one teacher in too many subjects outside their trained fields.

The head of the School of Teacher Education and Early Childhood said there was an expectation teachers would have expertise in their subject discipline area but it was not a requirement - which meant about 40% of teachers were teaching out of field.

Professor Winn, whose list of education related positions is too long to list, said technology had a huge role to play in aiding schools outside the major centres to meet the education needs of their students and help more regional kids graduate.

His comments come after this paper launched its Fair Go for Our Kids campaign revealing about 30,000 regional children a year do not finish Year 12.

Remote teaching

Prof Winn said remote teaching was not just a stop gap for in-classroom teaching but a practical way to address the issue.

He said with the right equipment, teachers could pan around a classroom and zoom in on students' work to provide instruction or feedback.

"We can't let geographical distances stop us from providing these communities with learning and teaching support," he said.

"It's a mythology, perpetrated by many, that we're actually replacing the teacher. We're not. We are capacity building and enhancing the teacher in that class.

Students in Quilpie built this robotic dog over video conferencing with a Toowoomba lecturer.
Students in Quilpie built this robotic dog over video conferencing with a Toowoomba lecturer. University of Southern Queenslan

"The paradigm about how people engage is based upon people who were typically born last millennium and have a construct about what they see as being virtual engagement and how they may or may not engage with that.

"But all of the work we've seen with young people, and I'm talking people as young as five or six years of age and up to 17 or 18, they cope very well with this virtual engagement.

"If the connectivity is stable, of a speed which enables a reliable connection, those students engage with it far better than some of the adults whose experiences, quite rightly, have been less than optimal last millennium when they tried Skype or other video interfacing.

"People will say it's not the same as having a person in the class but the reality is, just like in medicine, you cannot have a specialist in every single location but you can have someone who is the teacher in that space who can get access to expert teaching in areas they may not have it."

Children in rural Queensland schools have been learning how to make robotic dogs through video conferencing with remote teachers.
Children in rural Queensland schools have been learning how to make robotic dogs through video conferencing with remote teachers. Kirstin Payne

Having come from the medical discipline where it's impossible to cram a class of medical students around a body to observe an operation, Prof Winn knows about finding innovative ways to teach.

He said USQ had federal funding to place video conferencing equipment, that could be wheeled into any classroom to plug and play, at 13 schools across the southwest but believed the next State Government should consider a rollout program over four years to assess the positive results his university had already been experiencing.

"If you're in a small town 1000km west of Brisbane, you might really want a radiologist, ophthalmologist, a nephrologist and an oncologist in the community but we can't. A good family physician, though, can link you to the right person," he said.

When this paper launched the Fair Go for Our Kids campaign, it questioned whether teaching superstars such as Sydney-based Eddie Woo were part of the answer.

Mr Woo became famous for filming and posting his engaging maths classes on YouTube and has beamed into regional classrooms for lessons.

Responding on Twitter about remote teaching, Mr Woo said: "Tech has a vital role in a assisting regional schools but nothing replaces a great teacher in the classroom."

Home-grown teachers

James Cook University's Shaun Belward can see the advantages of remote teaching using technology within a regional areas with home grown teachers.

But the head of maths at JCU disagrees teaching superstars such as Eddie Woo are the way to go, seeing them as a motivator that should be used sparingly.

He said local potential was available but it needed to be valued and cultured.

"One of the challenges we have is a belief it's different in the regions, that perhaps we don't need this maths because we're in north Queensland," he said.

"You sort of reinforce that when you have someone from outside the region to come in and motivate, it implies there's no one here who can do that for us.

"What I am conscious of is the signal you send when you get a high-flier in from down south and the kid on the cane farm says 'That's not me, I don't want to have anything to do with Sydney or Melbourne, I want someone who looks like me'."

 

Mr Belward said he believed the first step towards changing graduation outcomes in regional areas was attracting quality teachers and ensuring they knew their content.

"First and foremost is the quality of the teacher in front of the kids, if you don't have a decent teacher in front of class, then all sort of issues arise," he said.

"They have to know their content, if they don't know their mathematics, then there's no way they can do the job properly.

"They'll either convincingly tell the students something that's not right or they will be spotted by the kids as being incompetent in their subject and then they'll have behavioural issues."

While the content can be taught, Mr Belward said recruiting quality science and maths teachers was hard enough, let alone attracting them to regional areas.

"Medicine and engineering can be highly competitive and hard to get into without a high OP but in education it's perhaps the reverse," he said.

"We've done some analysis on the students training to be maths teachers and we find a lot of them fall over in first year because they're not strong in maths.

"Unfortunately they don't quite have the skills from school to negotiate the mathematics program we offer.

"We want to get it in the heads of strong science and mathematics students that teaching is a good career option.

"Often you'll hear the anecdotal story of 'I was good at maths and science and they said you should do medicine or engineering at uni, don't waste your talent on teaching'."

Enticing qualified teachers

Mr Belward said even metropolitan areas struggled sometimes to entice qualified teachers in those areas but he was sure the data would reveal it was even harder in the regions.

"I think it comes down to the amount of jobs in other areas you can get with qualifications in maths and science - those skills are in demand in the corporate world, and especially engineering in this part of the world," he said.

As well as upskilling teachers, Mr Belward said the state government should consider scholarships to entice students into a teaching career and how to easily move people into a second career in the classroom.

"There's people who for whatever reason are dissatisfied in their current careers, and if you can show them teaching is a viable option, the second way into teaching is doing a post-graduate degree," he said.

"In recent years we've actually had quite a few engineers because of the downturn in the resources sector. You can exploit that market a bit more, get those people into maths and science to think about a change.

"But teaching does unfortunately have a bit of a stigma about it and sometimes there's nothing better than a bit of money and that's where politicians will struggle."

Prof Winn said once regional schools had the right video conferencing equipment installed, they had the potential to become community hubs for learning.

He said business owners, health professionals and others could also hook up with experts in metropolitan areas or regional centres to increase their knowledge.

 

Lecturer Alwyn Powell in Toowoomba speaks with USQ's Rod Fogarty in Quilpie via video conferencing tools.
Lecturer Alwyn Powell in Toowoomba speaks with USQ's Rod Fogarty in Quilpie via video conferencing tools. University of Southern Queenslan

In turn the importance of the school in the community would increase, Prof Winn said, leading to a greater focus on education and the places a Year 12 certificate could take you.

An LNP spokesman said connectivity was definitely an issue for regional schools and they would work to "improve internet access and boost learning outcomes for children in remote settings".

He said while university funding was Commonwealth, the LNP was willing to work with the education sector on how to deliver best outcomes.

Labor has promised to use spare capacity on publicly-owned optical fibre networks to increase competition for regional Queensland, which is says could improve education outcomes.

A Labor spokesman said remote teaching was used when and where appropriate but did not commit to expanding the practice to improve Year 12 outcomes.

The LNP agrees on incentives, saying it "strongly supports encouraging more students into key teaching areas like maths and will work to boost this into the future".

A Labor spokesman said Education Queensland already offered incentives "for teachers to work in regional Queensland schools for the benefit of regional communities".

Both parties indicated there would be more education policy announcements before polling day.

What our experts say the next State Government could do:

  • Commit money for USQ and other universities to set up monitors, cameras and other equipment in more regional and rural schools to help teachers meet their maths, science or other curriculum commitments. Roll out a program over four years to assess its effect.
  • Ensure there is sufficient bandwidth and connectivity available at regional schools to enable remote teaching via video conference links.
  • Provide incentives to entice regional students into teaching careers and encourage people to move into teaching as a second career, for example, engineers moving from the resource sector to do a post-graduate degree.

Topics:  editors picks education fairgoforourkids james cook university maths qldelection2017 remote teaching robotics science shaun belward stephen winn teaching university of southern queensland

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